Radio & Music

Cynicism and stupidity at the iTunes ministore…

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 have been operating in. 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 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.

27 replies on “Cynicism and stupidity at the iTunes ministore…”

I’m disgusted but not entirely surprised – the existence of something called the iTunes Music Store and the AAC tie-in tell me that iTunes is there to do a lot more than play mpegs. (Which is all I really want it to do – although I have to admit the rip and burn functionality is nice to have.)
I share your frustration – this is so close to being a lastfm-style addon (which would be extremely neat), and yet so far away. Fine line between stupid and clever, init.
Where else would I go? No idea, frankly – free is cheaper, and pre-installed is cheapest of all.

Didn’t care that this was in there. It took me 14 seconds to turn it off and if you’re one of the people that don’t change their defaults then you are probably the same person who doesn’t care that Apple is suggesting shit for you. Actually I would venture to say that many people who don’t know what a default is find this a feature because they are also to lazy to find music on their own.
I’m sure Apple cares that I’ve listened to the latest Devendra Banhart record on repeat for 3 hours.

I actually rather like it and will probably be using it every so often to find music and songs by artists I might have not come across before, as well as a quick way to see if any of the bands I like have new stuff out. I don’t see it as an advert because it’s contextual, it seems useful to me, and because it takes one click to make it go away and not return.
I’d venture a guess that you went into prefs to turn it off because the last noticeable UI “Improvement” for the purpose of shepherding you to the iTMS which apple added (the little store links everywhere) was turned off there. The mini store quickly reminded me of the album art display, so the button took me only a few seconds to find and click, and true to form, the mini store slides away just like the album art does (albeit in a bit of a wobbly way on my soon to be replaced iBook).
While it may have been nice for it to pop up a little box telling you it had been added, I really think you’re overreacting, as it literally takes one click of a button that looks like a smaller version of the mini store with an arrow, which is located under the mini store itself, to banish it from your UI.
Maybe I’m missing the point here, but it seems kind of obvious that it would send the song you’re playing to apple, since I figured it might be a little hard to get contextual music recommendations without actually having context.

If you hadn’t wrapped the very insightful paragraph – about why the mini Music Store is dumb compared to – with seven paragraphs of sub-Cory waffling about privacy, I might have appreciated it more. Shame. (I’m with Julian and Jim, by the way. It took me two minutes with a search engine to figure out how to turn off the mini store.)
Also, note that it’s keyed off selection, not track playing. I might even swtich on the mini store occasioanlly: it would be very useful with the iTMS album art web page (which is very cheeky, but also very handy).

I have to say that it really didn’t take me long to figure out how to get rid of it. Perhaps it’s just that my eyes picked up the new button down there and so realised it, I don’t know.
Anyway, the idea you raised about turning this into a service is a good one, and one that I hadn’t thought of. Sure, there’d be a bit of annoyance from certain members of the community who viewed it as them simply running with an existing good idea (such as happened with Konfabulator / Dashboard). However, it’d be a pretty neat addition (.Mac integration, perhaps?).
But yes, I agree with you, this is one step too far in my opinion — it reeks of commercialisation and not what Apple stands for. However, you must admit that if it wasn’t on by default nobody would really have taken note of it and thus the ‘feature’ wouldn’t really have gotten much use.

To Jim and Julian: The problem is not that the feature exists, because I can think of a number of ways it can be welcome or useful. The problem is more that it:

  • Is an opt-out rather than an opt-in service, raising privacy concerns. Also, as Tom mentions, most basic computer users don’t know they can change many options, or even how to change if they knew they could.
  • Takes up a large amount of screen real estate, especially on smaller displays like laptops, distracting from the functionality that most people are there for—playing music.
  • Appears as crass a money-grabbing move. iTunes became so popular due in part to its integration with the iPod, but also because it’s such an easy-to-use—and fun-to-use—application.

A number of services I use can collect usage data. When a program does this, I think it’s important to be up-front about what will happen, and also provide the user with an option to enable or disable the featre as desired. When I installed Google Desktop Search, I was given a strongly worded message explaining that I had an option to have this data submitted, along with an explanation of how it would be used. I had to decide whether I wanted this before the program continued to install.
Contrast that with the recent update to iTunes. I installed what was ostensibly a compatibility/security/functionality update through Mac OS X’s Software Update application, and when I relaunched iTunes, a garish bar was covering much of what used to be my track listings. I saw no indication that this involved transmission of my listening habbits or explanation of the uses of this data. This was a very un-Apple style of move: I’d expect this from the likes of Microsoft, frankly.

I’m frankly baffled by some of the responses that I’m seeing. I can only assume that these are from Windows iTunes users rather than Mac OS X iTunes users. Speaking with friends and family, and in my previous jobs in technical support, I’ve discovered that users of Windows and applications available on it have become accustomed to—and frankly expect to be strong-armed and abused by the software and hardware they run. Many don’t even know there’s an alternative.
I pity them.

I think it’s interesting all the inner workings of the mini store that people are digging up over on BoingBoing could potentially be used to create the usefulness Apple failed to make.
It looks like everything is there to make it work how people want it to work. Apple is already paying for a service ( to determine similarity of content. The data is apparently going over the network in ways that can be read by other applications to use for purposes other than advertising.

I’m with Patrick above. Yes, it’s a waste of space that got right on my nerves and has taken me about 5mins to find out how to get rid of – because I set up iTunes, once, with things the way I wanted them to be, and haven’t needed to change anything since: if I want to look at the music store, I’ll look at the music store, logically enough. It’s sufficiently evil that I am indeed closer to wanting another media-player. Someone should demand Apple issue a security upgrade that disables this default.

So a few comments to some of the criticisms made:
(1) Only two of the paragraphs are about privacy – there’s also the experience of being directly marketed at on your computer and the fact that it takes up a third of your navigational space. Both of those things are important to me – more important than the privacy stuff – but even in the privacy stuff I think it’s really significant to appreciate that shared information in public is something that people do worry about and should be supported.
(2) I’m a designer, and one of the things I’m required to think about in those circumstances is the whole group of people who aren’t like us and can’t necessarily figure these things out. Does having a big advert on the page affect naive users more than it does the rest of us? Will it put people off using the software – i think it will.
(3) To Paul – look we know each other and you’re basically l33t and yet it takes you TWO MINUTES AND A SEARCH REQUEST to turn the feature off!? At the very least that’s stunningly bad UI design and at worst it’s a real indicator of how confusing non-techies might find it as a feature. And it also suggests that you wanted to turn it off but couldn’t immediately figure out how! If that’s not bad design that alienates people I don’t know what it is.
But sure – I’m not by any means saying that everyone’s going to have problems with the interface, or that everyone’s going to react badly to it, or that it’s an apocalyptic end of the world kind of situation – but it is clumsy and inelegant and my personal opinion is that it will have an effect on the usage of the software. But obviously, I’m not speaking for a wider community and we’ll have to see in time what actually happens as a consequence…

I’m thinking it’ll be opt-in by the next release. The only reason they need it to be opt-out in this version is so that everyone knows it’s there. It takes up far too much screen real estate for them to leave it around in future releases.
And, for what it’s worth, it took me less than ten seconds – View menu, Hide MiniStore – and I’m happy again!

My excuse for failing to switch it off: I was tired.
I also think I’ve got out of the habit of “scrubbing” menus (opening them and looking inside), and instead I leapt for the preferences. This was the Wrong Thing to do (on the Mac, you want Edit > Hide MiniStore).
I did have a post brewing once about the confusingness of the iTunes buttons (some act globally, some per source) but it never seemed to make the light of day, and now I can’t find it again. If it emerges I’ll spool it, even though it’s waffly.

Technically, it’s in the privacy and legal disclaimer that you busily click through, so technically it’s there.
I agree with many of your points Tom, but other users (the ones who can’t figure out Edit>Hide) feel that they dodn’t have a choice anyway and that iTunes is for their iPod. They use the store like crazy and are used to get the same service from Amazon and Google making recommendations for you.
It’s free software.
Could it be easier to figure out? Yes, but it’s hardly a deal breaker for most. I think Google freaks me out more.
Andrew Ho wrote the craziest line ever though, “it reeks of commercialisation and not what Apple stands for.” I love Apple and their products, but lay off the kool-aid my friend. They just make money with style opposed to other companies who just grab it like whores. They are the geishas of the industry.

I just wish it wasn’t so…lame. I’ve been playing music all evening and it’s not yet updated to suggest anything different at all, the same inexplicable suggestion of a John Denver album and a few others.
Annoyingly, it seems to have no connection to the “Just for You” section of the regular Music Store–it’s “reccommending” wildly different stuff. And btw, shouldn’t the iTMS now *know* what I already own, and make much *better* suggestions than it was making yesterday? But no, it’s still suggesting all kinds of things that are already in my Library, but which I didn’t happen to buy from iTunes. Even “people-who-bought-also-bought” would be better than this. This current version doesn’t even seem as smart as the Print dialog’s “Supplies” button.
I’d love to see some sort of integration, but Apple just seems totally uninterested in the social aspects of any use of their products.

Ok, just so I don’t seem a total idiot: it does indeed update when I click on a track or album (and in fact does have a people-who-bought-also-bought function). I apparently navigate my Library by artist, and have been clicking on a lot of music that’s not in the iTMS.

I think it’s crass and ugly, and it should clearly be opt-in or just explained (how hard would it be to have a popup window appearing the first time 6.0.2 was run saying “this is the new mini-store window, we think it’s fab, it sends us data, if that worries you here’s how to get rid of it and it won’t send any data”?)
Does that surprise me from iTunes? Not really – iTunes seems to break another UI guideline with every revision, and it’s becoming more and more an iTunes Music Store sales program, if a relatively benign one in that you can turn everything so far off. Does it surprise me from Apple? Not really – they have much less of a Masters Of The Universe attitude than, say, Sony, but it’s part of the modern corporate mindset to grab every item of data that one possibly can, or leave the door open for that data to be grabbed.
What’s unusual about Apple’s market is that there are a number of vocal spokespeople who have zero tolerance for unannounced data gathering and adware, and it’s important that that remains to be the case. When “oh well what do you expect? what difference does it make to you?” starts being the common attitude, they will start to take greater and greater liberties.

strong-armed? indeed.
if you go to the apple site now to download quicktime it forces you into downloading iTunes as well. apparently there is a non encumbered link somewhere there but its another example of apple integrated aggravation.

I really hate that whenever Apple decides to disable music purchasing with older versions of iTunes I not only have to download the latest version, I usually also have to update my iPod software. Otherwise I can’t move purchased songs to the iPod. When this last happened I had to download a total of 60MB of software and go through an annoying installation of iTunes and iPod update.
Why should we have to jump through all these hoops just to listen to the music we have purchased? How is a 60MB forced download a good experience?
After this happened I scrubbed all my AAC files with jHymn. I haven’t purchased anything from iTunes either. DRM is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. PEOPLE WANT TO PAY FOR MUSIC, SO DON’T PUNISH THEM FOR IT!

Well, I’m out in left field because I’ve avoided ipods to begin with. Got turned off by the proprietary nature of it all. It seemed like an mp3 player with flash memory was a simpler, cheaper, and more flexible way to go. That said, I would be vastly annoyed by having ads pumped at me without any upfront choice, and I would be only slightly mollfied when I found the off button. But I’m an ornery cuss, so maybe they can get away with it with calmer folks.

It stuns me that there are people – maybe I’ll go even further and call them ‘Apple apologists’ – who think that it’s appropriate to respond “what’s the big deal? It didn’t take me that long to figure out how to turn it off.”
It should *never* have been on by default in the first place!
I think I still have an iTunes 6.0.1 installer around here somewhere…

Okay, let’s say I’m a software developer that wants to provide his users with a cool personalized recommendations system to his (and probably my) benefit. I also know that “people don’t change their defaults”.
What should I do? Confuse my users that are obviously overwhelmed by changing prefs or pressing a button on the lower right side of the window with a complicated dialog explaining how collaborative filtering works?
I buy most of my stuff at Amazon. I have not found a way yet to turn off their recommendations. If we go that Web 2.0 way of blurring edges between web and desktop apps, we better find a consistent way of dealing with these kind of things…

Tom, great blog. I have to say most of the give and take here appears pretty civil.
I came across your site because of the referer links to mine — I’m the guy who broke the iTunes privacy story. I think most of the arguments have been hashed out above, so I won’t re-hash. I like your point about people generally not changing defaults.
The only thing I’d add is that I wish more people focused on the role of Omniture in the iTunes privacy issue: an Apple product phoning home to Apple is one thing, but an Apple product phoning to a third party is another kettle of fish entirely.

I just came across this page by searching “cynicism” in

I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the emormus cynicism on the part of Apple: they offer you to buy similar music to that you’re playing, but first they offer you to buy the music that you already own. So now people who don’t *really* own the music they’re playing can feel bad about it!

I work in the music industry and I must say I found this move by Apple cynical but rather clever. For 2 minutes. Then I turned the thing off. (didn’t see the icon at the bottom either, I went strait to the preferences, noticed a new “parental control” tab and disabled the store altogether.)

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