Cynicism and stupidity at the iTunes ministore…

01/11/2006

Yesterday’s Apple keynote wasn’t enormously exciting, but there were a couple of interesting products. I’m still expecting to buy myself an iMac, but now I’ll be getting one of the way shinier and fast Intel ones. And the MacBook Pro, despite having the dodgiest name ever, is pretty damn shiny. I’ve got a work Powerbook coming and I’m trying to work out if there’s any way I can cancel it and get the new one pushed through instead. I justify it that it’s more future-proof and therefore a better investment.

But among all this comes one move that seems so profoundly stupid and clumsy that I can’t honestly believe that they thought they’d get away with it without any flak. And this ‘feature’ is the new Ministore feature in iTunes, elegantly skipped over in the section on playlists on the iTunes site. This feature is – basically – a huge set of contextual adverts on your library navigation screen that tell you things that you could be buying right now on the iTunes Music Store. It changes depending on what you’re playing or what you’ve got selected in the Library. It’s on by default, takes up a third of the screen on my 15″ Powerbook and – frankly – is a lurid and cynical encroachment into my life.

Now I get that iTunes is a free download and I don’t begrudge Apple – or anyone – trying to make a living from their software. But I just can’t see how anyone really thinks it’s going to do them any good in the medium term. People tried to sell browsers a while ago with ads scattered all around them, and they got almost no penetration. People just didn’t like it. And in the meantime, Apple get such an enormous benefit from having the platform almost ubiquitously on people’s computers. It seems like a really strange move to risk alienating so many people by being so crass.

Except it gets worse. No only does it show adverts on your computer, it also sends information back to Apple – it has to in order to know which ads to serve to you. There’s a real question about whether it just transmits information about which songs you’re referencing or if it also sends back information about everything you’re playing, but it’s enough to creep people out. Boing Boing and Cory Doctorow have a good post on this subject already: iTunes update spies on your listening and sends it to Apple? .

This is an interesting territory for me. I’ve been puzzled for a hell of a long time why more companies aren’t exploring the space that last.fm have been operating in. Last.fm is an opt-in service that collates all the songs that you listen to, creates really shiny charts and recommendations for you and helps you discover new music. All of this functionality would seem like a natural fit for Apple who (1) own a lot of the audio player space (2) already keep track of what you’re listening to on your client and (3) have a store to sell music through. Helping people discover new music through an opt-in service like last.fm would seem to be an enormously interesting and exciting area for Apple to investigate and one which people would view as a feature rather than as an imposition. It looks to me like they’ve observed the financial possibilities but not thought through their options and – rather than going for the elegant, clued-up and sensible option of making their services useful first (because otherwise it’ll never be profitable) they’ve just looked at their users as a milkable resource to screw for every penny they can. It’s a stunningly short-termist strategy that will get them good short-term performance gains while fairly rapidly destroying their mindshare.

Before anyone says anything – sure, I know you can turn the option off, but that’s not the point. I’m a pretty competant iTunes user and a long-term Apple user and I scrabbled around in the top menu and in the preferences for about ten minutes before i noticed the generic button added at the bottom right of the screen. And a general rule of interfaces is that people don’t change their defaults, so if I can’t find it easily then it’s going to be stuck on my parents computer for years. There wasn’t even a dialogue box asking me if I’d like to try the new functionality! Discussion on the internet suggests that when it’s closed it no longer sends information to the music store or elsewhere, and I suppose that’s a plus – but how would you know unless you knew how to intercept and interrogate network traffic!? The whole thing is sloppy, clumsy and I can’t help feeling will bite Apple hard in the ass in not very long at all.

But maybe I’m alone in thinking all of this. Anyone else? Is this the kind of thing you expect from Apple? Is it the kind of thing that you’d comfortably use on a daily basis? Do you feel more tempted to switch to another player now? And if so, where would you go?

Read more interesting stuff here: iTunes is watching, on Apple’s privacy statements.

Addendum: Apple have now made this feature opt-in.