Apple Treads Dangerous Path with Auto-Delivered Free Content Like the U2 Album

Readers of this blog are certainly aware that Apple, last week, gave 500 million people free copies of the latest U2 album (though only about 2 million people have downloaded it). Rather than send out redeem codes for the album, allowing customers to add it to their iTunes library if they so desired, Apple simply added it to everyone’s iTunes account. Depending on the settings you have in iTunes and on your iOS device, the album may have auto-downloaded, or may appear as a purchase in the cloud. While you can hide this U2 album, you cannot delete it; it is yours forever.

Apple’s assumption that 500 million people were actually interested in this album quickly proved erroneous. Many people were annoyed to discover this album on their devices, and others were worried that someone had hacked their iTunes Store accounts, purchasing this album without their awareness. Still others don’t even know who U2 is.

(Great joke seen on Twitter: Apple added a U2 maps app to my iPhone without asking me; all the streets have no names.)

Apple is treading a dangerous path with this sort of operation. The iTunes Store has long offered free content: there has been a free single of the week since the store opened; there are free TV episodes, just about every week; there are free apps, free books, and more. But iTunes Store customers were always free to choose whether or not they wanted to download this content. Never before has Apple pushed this content to customers.

Many people have written that the anger over this is misplaced (here’s one article by Peter Cohen on iMore); that Apple just wanted to give people a lagniappe, and that no one should be angry about free stuff. But this ignores the fact that a person’s iTunes library is a representation of their personality, of their musical tastes. Just like I wouldn’t be happy to find a Justin Bieber album in my iTunes library, I can understand that many people aren’t delighted that they now own a U2 record.

The biggest issue, in my opinion, is whether or not this is a one-off marketing event or whether Apple is testing the waters, planning to use this procedure in the future. Can you imagine if Apple pushed a new single to you every week, because either they are using it as a marketing tool (Apple reportedly paid U2 $100 million for this album) or because an artist has paid Apple to get them to push their content? This would eventually become quite confusing for iTunes Store customers; you would have to spend a lot of time hiding the content you no longer want to see in your iTunes library. And what if Apple started pushing apps to their customers, because they were paid to do so? This would be no different from the pre-bundled apps that Android users find filling up their smartphones.

Apple’s communication about this was clearly inefficient. Many people were worried that their iTunes Store accounts were hacked; Apple only sent out an email to customers about 48 hours after the album was released; This is enough time for people who don’t follow tech news to be worried about their bank accounts. And I think only those customers who have settings to receive email even got this message. (I have multiple iTunes Store accounts, and only got the email once. Only one of my accounts is set up to get Apple’s iTunes Store emails.)

If Apple were to start pushing free content regularly, they would be well-advised to make this an op-in option. But even then, people might simply forget they accepted this option, and be surprised when they see certain content in their iTunes libraries.

I think Apple made a mistake here. I understand why; they wanted this to be the largest album release in history, so it counts as though 500 million people actually own the album. But in their hubris, they annoyed a lot of customers. Given the recent security issues around iCloud accounts, Apple should avoid doing anything that makes people suspicious. Apple has always been a company one can trust, and this shouldn’t change just because of some misguided marketing choices.