LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The iPod, Apple Computer Inc.'s (AAPL.O) MP3player, has been widely hailed as one of the best digital music playersever.
It's small, it's light, it's fast, and it's slick-looking.
It also doesn't work with Windows. Or, at least it's not supposedto.
When Apple released the $399 iPod on Oct. 23, the company's chiefexecutive and iconic founder, Steve Jobs, made it clear the company hadnot made a decision as to whether it would ever support Windows withthe device, which has the same sleek white lines as Apple's newerlaptops and desktop computers.
But Apple's reticence has not stopped a legion of enthusiasts --professional software companies to college kids -- from making theirown software to solve the compatibility problem.
Mediafour Corp., a private software developer in West Des Moines,Iowa, has made its name over the years with software that allows usersof Windows PCs to read and use Macintosh disks and programs.
So it was only natural that within weeks of the iPod's launchMediafour announced "XPod," a program that would allow people withWindows PCs and a FireWire port (the high-speed port type the iPoduses) to use it just like any other MP3 player.
"The iPod itself is basically just a Mac hard drive," said JeffJorgensen, Mediafour's director of business development. "It sort ofgot our minds clicking -- we think we can do this."
Though the company changed the product's name to "XPlay" after Appleexpressed some discomfort with the original name, Jorgensen said Appleengineers were eager to see the product at the annual Macworld expo inJanuary.
While XPlay is currently free to download, and has had over 10,000downloads to date, Mediafour plans to charge for the product when it isfinally complete.
Jorgensen said the final version, which had been expected in lateFebruary, will likely launch in the "very near future" at a pricesomewhere under $40.
EPHPOD A (PARTIALLY) FREE ALTERNATIVE
But XPlay is not the only solution on the market. Joe Masters, 22, asenior English and math major at Williams College has created "EphPod,"(named for "Ephs", the school's mascot) which offers much of the samefunctionality as XPlay.
While XPlay has gone through five public releases, EphPod has had atleast 17, each adding a few new features and tweaks to make the PC-iPodrelationship a little smoother.
"It seems to be working pretty well for most people, so I haven'thad to fix many bugs lately," Masters said in an e-mail interview.
Masters said his reason for developing EphPod was simple -- he wasgiven an iPod for Christmas but does not have a Macintosh, so hedecided to solve the problem himself.
His Web site ( http://www.ephpod.com ) has received over 37,000 visits to date, and publicsentiment online among iPod enthusiasts seems to run about 50-50between EphPod and XPlay.
As opposed to XPlay, which builds Mac drive recognition in, EphPodneeds a second and separate program to make the PC recognize the iPodas a drive.
The EphPod Web site directs potential users to DataViz, a privatelyheld software company that also has its origins in Mac-to-PCcompatibility and produces a Mac drive reader for PCs calledMacOpener.
Masters and DataViz have teamed up to offer a five-day free trial ofMacOpener, but once the trial expires the program costs $50 toregister.
iPOD HACKING, ENTHUSIASM WIDESPREAD
Both Mediafour's Jorgensen and EphPod's Masters said they have nothad any real problems with Apple over their efforts, and for its part,Apple says it's fairly neutral on the subject.
"We're always happy to see people use our products in innovativeways ... and if those innovative ways are to extend the iPod, we'rehappy with that," said Greg Joswiak, senior director of hardwareproduct marketing for Apple.
Joswiak also left some hope for an official iPod Windows product,"We haven't closed the door on whether we'll do a Windows version ornot."
But while Windows functionality for the iPod is not yet official,another common hack for the player recently made its debut in officialform from Apple.
At last week's Macworld show in Tokyo, Jobs unveiled a softwareupgrade for the iPod that would allow it to pull contact informationfrom popular organizer software and create a rudimentary contacts liston the device.
But for the enterprising iPod owner, basic organizer functions wereavailable weeks ago through a program called Panorama from ProvueDevelopment.
While the new, official Apple software actually adds a "Contacts"list to the iPod's menu, Panorama is, as one reviewer called it, a"sneaky hack;" it adds the users contacts as entries under the iPod's"Artists" menu.
XPlay's current preview version offers contact functions, whileEphPod does not.
Adding contacts, though, is just one of many hacks being undertakenby avid iPod users.
Among the others are: running an iPod on Linux ( http://www.neuron.com/jason/ipod.html);turning it into a universal remote ( http://www.griffintechnology.com);and unearthing secret games hidden in memory ( http://www.shift.com/web/profile/profile006.asp).
Mediafour's Jorgensen makes the point that with this muchenthusiasm, Apple might well benefit from embracing the communitiesseeking to extend the iPod's capabilities.
"They stand to sell a heck of a lot of hardware," he said.