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Deep linking strategies for iTunes

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Not long after the iTunes Music Store launched as a Mac only service in April, enterprising hackers started figuring out how to expose the service’s information in XML for the purpose of doing deep links. Not long after that, Apple changed the format of the information available by following those links so that the XML wasn’t exposed, apparently to foil deep linking. Much wringing of hands followed. Now, in iTunes 4.1, Apple has baked deep linking directly into the user experience.

There appear to be three ways to do deep links on the iTMS without rolling your own URLs: one is to drag any hyperlink (not individual music tracks, but underlined artist or album names) to an application that supports drag and drop. You can also right click on a hyperlink or an individual track and choose the Copy Music Store URL option. That’t how I constructed the links last night. Doing either one results in a hyperlink using HTTP that goes to phobos.apple.com.

The third is the iTMS Link Maker, a web app on phobos.apple.com that walks you through a wizard to build links and gives you a JavaScript-based URL to go to the link. It also incorporates an IE plug-in control called the iTunes Detector that is loaded as part of the JavaScript solution that makes clicked hyperlinks behave “intelligently”—that is, when clicked, the links either open the selection in the iTunes Music Store, or take the user to a download page where they can get iTunes if they don’t already have it installed.

I’m less enthralled with this for a number of reasons. Number one, it requires embedding the script detector in the head of each page that bears the links—not a big deal when all pages on your blog are generated dynamically, but still something of a hassle. Number two, the iTunes Detector may be a lightweight piece of code, but it is not a lightweight user experience. I think I would rather have a link fail than pop an installer dialog over my blog pages.

That said, I’m not sure the direct link methods are any better of a user experience. The page on phobos.apple.com that is opened by these methods calls iTunes and then sends the user back to the calling page on Internet Explorer for Windows; on Safari, it appears to automatically close the calling page or tab. (Verification welcomed; I’ve only tested on my own machine.)

In the end, is this going to pose a threat to other services that support and enable deep linking, such as, um, Amazon? Probably not; after all, Amazon will pay you cash money for using deep links (though you have to be pretty serious as an affiliate to actually make enough for it to be worthwhile for Amazon to send you a check). But for those of us who like sharing music recommendations, it provides an easy way for us to publish permalinks to worthwhile music while providing Apple with free word of mouth, which I think is a pretty fair value proposition.

(Expanded from an original post on Jarrett House North.)

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About Timothy Jarrett

  • Thanks! This is the kind of topic that awakens my ‘legal’ brain. I encourage you to blog it since it may become significant down the road.

  • Hmm, spoke too soon: Patent 6,029,141, “Internet-based customer referral system.” The claims are fairly specific to Amazon’s business method, but they do cover “generating hypertextual documents with item-specific links that, when selected by a customer, cause the user’s associate identifier and an identifier of a recommended item to be transmitted to the Web site system in a request message,” as well as a bunch of stuff about associate recruitment and payment. That’s as far as I go, since IANAL (and there are 42 claims).

  • To the best of my knowledge, most of the legal activity around deep linking has been sites that have fought to prevent it, who see bypassing portal pages, ads, and other navigation as a curse and not a blessing. I don’t think anyone will “own” the protocol for deep linking–it’s just a permanent hyperlink–but will someone try to patent automatic link building tools that support affiliate programs, for example? Probably…

  • Tim, has anyone declared ‘ownership’ of deep linking protocols? I am wondering because of the legal battle over who gets credit for Linux. Will Amazon, as apparently the most effective pioneer of deep linking, take exception as other companies horn in, possibly depriving it of market share? For example, if Blogcritics’ contract with Amazon is not exclusive, it could start using deep links to other sites.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks Tim, very interesting. I was wondering WHY I would want to do this, but you came through in the end and it makes perfect sense.