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This iPhoneless Life #11 – iTunes’ Secret Agent

August 27, 2010

iPod To describe my life as iPhoneless is a slight exaggeration. There is definitely an iPhone in my life, my wife’s iPhone 4, and it robs me of sleep.

My wife is addicted to Angry Birds.  It has not quite taken over completely from reading in bed at night (I can thank the late Stieg Larsson for that) but there seems to be an unwritten rule that we have to get through at least 2 or 3 levels of the aforementioned smash hit game before calling it a night.  I am often called in to help out clearing a level if my wife is stuck on it and wants a break to read another chapter of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I am expected to keep going until every last grunting green pig has been blown to bits.


So I know all about the iPhone 4, it’s beautiful “retina” screen and gorgeous build quality. But for my own use I still have my old, battered Windows Mobile phone – an HTC Tytn II (in O2 “Stellar” livery).  It has done a job for me but now enough is enough and I want a modern phone.

Largely out of sheer bedevilment, I am determined not to become an iPhone user like everyone else in my family. And I’m wary of being a Windows Phone early adopter, much as I believe that platform holds out great promise. How could I forget what it was like to be an early adopter of Vista, when the pain of it is still faithfully documented in this blog? So I will go Android, at least for the foreseeable future, and currently favour the Samsung Galaxy S.

It was while I was checking out what the podcast client options look like in the Android world that I came across a free open source application called iTunes Agent. The idea is very simple. It makes your random non-Apple music device look, to iTunes, like an iPod. That means you can use iTunes directly and seamlessly to synchronise music and podcasts with any mp3 player or phone.  iTunes Agent has been around for quite a while and I can’t think how I missed it, particularly when I was casting around for a podcast solution for my HTC WM6 phone. As explained in an earlier post, I have a more than workable solution using iTunes for podcast capture and WMP for synchronisation, but iTunes Agent looked like a neater fix and I thought I should try it out.

I had no trouble installing and running iTunes Agent on my Windows 7 PC, and it hooked up immediately with iTunes. The difficulty I had was getting iTunes Agent to link up to my phone when the latter was connected to the PC via USB.

The way it is supposed to work is that you specify the folder on your music device where you want your synchronised music to live, in my case a folder on the HTC phone’s micro SD storage card. When you connect your phone, iTunes Agent is supposed to detect that this folder  is available on the Windows file system and therefore knows your phone is ready for synchronisation.  The limitation is that iTunes Agent requires your phone or music player to have been allocated a drive letter by Windows, but Windows was just listing my phone under “Portable Devices”. I could easily navigate through the phone’s folders and files using Windows Explorer but no way could I persuade Windows to allocate a drive letter.  And without a drive letter, iTunes Agent refused to accept any folder on the storage card as synchronisation target.

This stumped me for a while until, by dint of frantic Googling, I discovered the difference between the MTP and UMS protocols for connecting storage devices over USB. My phone naturally connects to my PC using MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) – a technology which is reckoned to offer the widest device compatibility with media players – as opposed to UMS (USB Mass Storage) which is targeted more at USB keys and SD card readers. Unfortunately Windows only allocates a drive letter with UMS devices, not with MTP.

More Googling and I found out about two applications that can be installed on a WM phone to make it emulate a UMS device and thus qualify for a drive letter, W5torage and Softick Card Export.  The former was written by a lone developer and is free whereas Card Export is a commercial product. Both were created so that you can in effect use your WM phone as a card reader.

I tried W5torage first.  It installed fine on my phone and appeared to be running, but in UMS mode my PC was not able to detect my phone at all. A quick uninstall and I tried Card Export, which is free to trial for 21 days. I took an instant dislike to the latter because it automatically added an annoying status display to my Today screen and an icon in the notification tray. It did however work. My phone now appeared as the G: drive and at last I was able to configure my phone in iTunes Agent. My HTC now showed up as a device in iTunes.

This did not though constitute a happy ending. Before going much further I was determined to rid my phone’s Today screen of the unwanted Card Export status display.  I went into the phone settings and unticked the Card Export option from the list of Today items. This resulted in my phone locking up. A reboot later and the Today Screen was free of Card Export status, but now my program icons were missing. There was clearly some clash between Card Export and the application manager software from O2 which came with my phone. Now the O2 software is lot more important to me than use of iTunes Agent – my researches in that direction were more curiosity than need – so it was Card Export that was going to have to go.

It took about 10 reboots before the phone was working normally again, with no trace of Card Export, the Today screen displaying all the right items and no lock-ups when I tried to access the Today settings.  There was a moment when I thought I was going to have to ditch the phone as a write-off, or at least restore factory settings.

That is, unfortunately, one of the most problematical issues with Windows Mobile. Lots of apps but easy access by developers to the deep innards of the operating system, which can readily become unstable as a result. I don’t know why iTunes Agent had remained a secret to me for so long but I could have done with it remaining a secret.

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One comment

  1. This iPhoneless Life #11 ? iTunes? Secret Agent…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…



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