iTunes Plus: No DRM, but Breadcrumbs

Today, Apple released its first “iTunes Plus” tracks, music in 256 kbps AAC format with no DRM. So you can copy this music to any computer, play it on any device or computer that supports AAC, with no restrictions. However, while there is no DRM (digital rights management) in these tracks, there are breadcrumbs.

If you look into an iTunes Plus file–just open one with a text editor–you’ll see both your name and your iTunes account ID. Here’s an example of my name showing at the beginning of the file:

And, here is where my iTunes account ID shows up (I’ve replaced the actual ID with XXX@XXX.XXX:)

You’ll also see this information in the Info window for the tracks in iTunes.

So, while nothing is stopping you from sharing these files, remember that anyone will be able to find out who initially bought them. You can most likely edit the above information with a hex editor, but I haven’t tried that yet.

Apple Bungles Bluetooth in Mac Pro

(When I wrote this article in late October 2006, I assumed that Apple would eventually discover the problem and fix it. After all, there are many posts on Apple’s Support discussion boards about this issue. But, no; I get one or two emails a week from readers who have Mac Pros and have the same problem. I’m astounded that Apple still hasn’t fixed this–in fact, it is clear that the problem is not just in factories, because this morning I received an email from a reader who had the Bluetooth module installed (and wired incorrectly) in an Apple Store.

One more thing. I had the motherboard of my Mac Pro changed last week–there was a problem with USB ports. The technician who came to change it was the same one who walked me through the wiring change for the Bluetooth module over the phone–see below for more on my change. He was very interested to see which wires went where; when he took out the motherboard, it was very clear: the wire that had been originally connected to the Bluetooth module was the one that ran to the AirPort antenna at the back of the computer.)

When I got my new Mac Pro, I was delighted to have such a fast, quiet, powerful new Mac. I was also very happy to be able to use it with my recently-bought Mighty Mouse, which is one of the nicest input devices I’ve used yet. So to do this, I had to order the Bluetooth module, which is a build-to-order option on the Mac Pro. Alas, Apple bungled very badly, connecting the wrong wire to the Bluetooth module. But I’m not the only person who has had this problem; it seems endemic. Read on to find out the whole story…I started wondering what was wrong when my mouse skipped across the screen. Tracking was, at times, normal, but at others it was jerky. I’m right-handed, and the mouse is to the right of my keyboard; the Mac Pro is on the floor, just next to my desk, at a distance of about three feet. It’s in a kind of bookcase, and there’s a desk between it, but the bookcase is open at the front and back, so those two pieces of particle board couldn’t be blocking the Bluetooth transmission, so I thought.

Since I have AppleCare on the Mac Pro, I called the support team. They made me go through the usual motions–run a hardware test, reinstall the Mighty Mouse software, try another user account, and do a clean install. (Note that this was about two hours of my time to get a EUR 39 Bluetooth module and EUR 69 Mighty Mouse to work together…) Nothing resolved the problem, so they determined that there was a problem with the Bluetooth module and/or antenna, and told me a technician would get back to me to set up an appointment. AppleCare here offers on-site repairs for desktop Macs, and that’s one of the reasons why I always buy such contracts: living in rural France, the nearest Apple repair center is a few hundred kilometers away.

The next day, the technician who would come and make the repairs called to make sure he understood the problem, and to say he was ordering the parts. Yesterday (about a week after he ordered the parts) he called to say he would be coming today to make the repair. But in the meantime, I had looked around and seen, on Apple’s discussion boards, that other users were having the same problem. Not only was the problem the same, but a solution was offered.

Here’s where we get to the bungling on Apple’s part… The Bluetooth module is a small chip placed on the motherboard, and it has to be connected to a tiny wire that runs to the Bluetooth antenna. This wire is one of four, three of which are labeled: one has a “BT” label (this is a sticker that wraps around the wire), one is labeled “2”, and another “3”. For some reason, there is a fourth wire which is unlabeled.

The 2 and 3 wires are shorter than the BT and unlabeled wires: they are just long enough to reach the location where and AirPort card would be added. (I don’t have AirPort, so they’re not connected.) The other two wires (BT and unlabeled) are the same length; both can reach the Bluetooth module. So the solution proposed was to switch the BT wire for the unlabeled wire; as the posters in the thread linked to above have all said, this resolves the problem.

So here’s the rub: what happened is that two wires got mislabeled. This didn’t happen when the Bluetooth module was added to the computer, but during the actual assembly of the Mac Pro. This means that either all of Apple’s process sheets have an error, or only some Mac Pros are affected. It’s hard to know which: not every Mac Pro purchaser will get the Bluetooth module, so they won’t have a problem unless they add one later. Also, since the Mighty Mouse works at a distance of about two feet, many users may not realize that there is a problem: it seems that the module itself, and whatever that wire is connected to, emits enough power to work at short distances. (Whereas Bluetooth is speced to work at up to 10 meters or 30 feet.) These users may, however, have occasional problems, and write them off as battery issues or interference.

This has already cost Apple a bit of money, in support calls, and in exchanging Mac Pros, which they seem to have done in some cases, as well as keyboards and mice. The technician who was to come and change my Bluetooth module was especially glad that I could fix the problem (I did it while he walked me through it on the phone), because he had a total of five hours’ drive to my house and back.

Apple’s quality control has failed here. It’s pretty simple to mislabel one of two similar wires (though I haven’t yet found what the purpose of the other wire is), but to allow a machine to go into production without that being discovered is surprising. Again, this may only be the case on a limited number of Mac Pros, or it could affect all of them.

Apple, if you’re reading this, you’d better resolve the problem in your factories, and you had better then contact everyone who has bought a Mac Pro with a Bluetooth module. Save your time, and save ours–two hours the first time, then another hour yesterday to make the fix (going slowly, with the technician on the phone, to make sure I didn’t screw anything up) is far more time than I need to spend on a mistake that is the result of ineptitude. I grant that mistakes happen, but I’m tired of spending so much time to resolve them, simply because you haven’t found them yet.

July 2010: I still get emails about this, and comments are posted to this article, so apparently there are still issues with Bluetooth on Mac Pros. I sold mine more than a year ago – not because of the Bluetooth issue, but because I wanted to downsize (I got a Mac mini) – so I can’t help those who post asking for more help.

Here’s a link to a site that shows some pictures, which, if I recall correctly, match what I saw in my Mac Pro.

More info, Sept. 2010: A reader has pointed me to the following information that he posted on his web site. He solved the problem using a third-party Bluetooth dongle.

10 Points to Consider about iTunes, EMI and DRM

Apple and EMI yesterday announced that the record label will provide DRM-free music to Apple and others to sell online. This has many ramifications for the digital music market, and for consumers. Do you need DRM-free music? Do you need the better-quality tracks the iTunes Store is selling? How will all this affect you? Read on for ten points that you should consider.1. What DRM means to you

With Apple and EMI announcing that EMI music will be sold without DRM (digital rights management), what exactly does this mean to you? If you choose to purchase this “premium” music, you will get not only DRM-free songs, but also higher quality files: 256 kbps instead of 128 kbps. Since most people can’t tell the difference between these bit rates, you probably won’t notice much (though if you listen to your music on a home stereo, and have good ears, you might). However, the big difference is no DRM: you will be able to use the files you purchase on any device–iPod, Zune, or other MP3 player, as well as streaming players, such as the Sonos and others. In addition, you will be able to listen to your music on as many devices as you want–no more five computer limit.

However, it is not yet clear whether there will be any “digital watermarking” in these files. This is a technique that allows a vendor to add unique information–such as your name and account identifier–to the tracks, which would allow the vendor to tell who provided files to peer-to-peer services or illegal download sites. You will certainly be able to “share” music with friends; this is the same as lending someone a CD today so they can rip it. (While not legal, most musicians you speak to have no problem with this, since it gets more people to listen to their music.) You will still have the same “rights” you have with CDs, and the same limits: you are not supposed to copy the music for others, etc., but the vendors all realize that no matter what they do this copying will occur.

2. The price goes up

But only for individual songs. You’ll pay $1.29 per song, but albums won’t cost any more. This is an interesting concept: the record labels will be playing to consumers of two types. First, those who buy individual songs, which represent a non-negligable share of the music download market, will pay more. The labels have wanted to increase prices for a while, and this lets them do so, without looking as though they are simply raising prices with nothing given to consumers in return. But more “faithful” consumers–those who buy albums–will pay the same price, and get better quality and no DRM.

3. Upgrade your songs

In addition to this new price per song, consumers will be able to “upgrade” their songs for 30 cents each. It is not yet clear how this will work for album purchases; will they expect me to pay, say, $6 to “upgrade” an album that contains 20 tracks? What about a set of Shostakovich string quartets I purchased; 62 tracks, that cost me $30. Would I have to pay another $18 to upgrade to better quality DRM-free tracks? Or that Bob Dylan set, with some 800 tracks; at 30 cents a song, it would cost less to buy it again than to upgrade it. Apple has to think this out carefully, in order to not penalize their best customers.

4. Apple can now sell to people with other devices

Got a Zune? Think that Microsoft’s attempt to create an online store, complete with Redmond-only math, is pathetic? No problem. The Zune supports AAC (the file format the iTunes Store sells), so you’re in luck. Just purchase from iTunes and load on your Zune. (I don’t know if you’ll be able to squirt these tracks though…) The same is true for the hundreds of other devices; you will now be able to buy from the iTunes Store, which has much more selection than other online music vendors. Of course, it will take time for all the labels to accept music without DRM, and this won’t be happening tomorrow, but it won’t be long; they’ll have to follow, because it’s clear that consumers will choose no DRM.

5. I can now buy from other online music vendors

While regulators here in Europe have been hassling Apple over iTunes Store sales not being interoperable with other players, I’ve been irked in the other direction. As an iPod user–and especially as a Mac user–I haven’t been able to buy music from the other vendors. I’m not saying that I’ve found anything that I would buy from them, that’s not on the iTunes Store, but at least I’ll be able to now. If they let Mac users into their stores, that is.

6. Competition?

If all online vendors can sell the same music without DRM, then consumers will indeed have choice. Some vendors, of course, will sell in formats that won’t play on iPods; they may sell in WMA format, which only works on Microsoft-sancioned products. But that would shut them out of the largest part of the market. For that reason, I expect them all to move to MP3 or AAC format eventually. With no DRM, anyone can buy from anyone and play the music on any device. This is a Good Thing. However, I expect the iTunes Store to sign exclusive deals with some artists; not to be the only vendor to sell their music, but to have bonus tracks that aren’t available elsewhere.

7. Apple protects itself from regulators

Speaking of regulators, Apple has now shown that they can and will offer music without DRM, and this should lift the threats from EU regulators regarding interoperability. Of course, not all iTunes Store music will be DRM-free, but Apple can now show that it is the record labels who choose, not Apple. (Note that today’s announcement by European Union regulators of an anti-trust action against Apple and record labels is about different things; it is about territorial restrictions, which, again, are imposed by the record companies. So, once again, the EU is picking on Apple rather than going after all the various online vendors, who all apply the same geographical restrictions.)

8. Steve talks the talk

Steve Jobs got dissed by part of the press for his Thoughts on Music, the open letter where he said that Apple would be glad to sell music without DRM. He was said to be just strutting, whereas he wouldn’t really go through with the change. Well, he did. ‘Nuff said.

9. You need a higher-capacity iPod

Yep, if you want those 256 kbps files, you’ve just reduced the number of songs your iPod can hold by half. So that 80 GB iPod video looks pretty good now. Apple has never sold as many of the high-capacity iPods as the smaller models, but now consumers may want that extra disk space. Apple’s the winner here, with increased sales at the high end.

10. File Formats

The iTunes Store sells music in AAC format; this is part of the MP4 standard, and generally sounds better than MP3 or WMA files at the same bit rate. However, not all portable music players support AAC. Microsoft’s Zune does, as do some Sony players, and a handful of other models. If the iTunes Store reinforces its position in the market, you can expect to see other players start supporting AAC. However, if this new open competition gives equal footing to other online vendors, there may be no change. It’s hard to tell how this will play out.

Meanwhile, Wired got it very wrong again. In this article about the announcement, the Wired authors claimed, “Many onlookers had assumed that the company would go with the widely supported MP3 format. The decision to use AAC represents a crack in the wall that has separated services and devices that use Microsoft’s WMA from those that use AAC.” They even link to the EMI press release, but apparently, the smoke got in their eyes, and they missed this part of the release: “EMI expects that consumers will be able to purchase higher quality DRM-free downloads from a variety of digital music stores within the coming weeks, with each retailer choosing whether to sell downloads in AAC, WMA, MP3 or other unprotected formats of their choice.” It’s a shame when journalists can’t read…

DRM Is Dead – Sort Of

Less than two months ago, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, published his Thoughts on Music, suggesting that if the major labels would allow Apple to sell music without DRM (digital rights management) he would be happy to do so. Well, today EMI became the first major label to agree to Jobs’ offer, announcing, at a London press conference, that EMI will make available its entire catalog of music in a new, “premium” format. This format will be DRM-free, and will also be higher quality, at 256 kpbs compared to the current 128 kpbs that is sold on the iTunes Store.

This premium service comes with a price; 30 cents more in the US, though it sounds like album prices will remain the same. (The press conference was not clear enough on this question, which I’m sure will be straightened out soon.) Users who already have EMI music will be able to “upgrade” their iTunes purchases for 30 cents per track. So, the iTunes Store, at least for EMI purchases, will offer two pricing systems: all music will still be available in DRMed tracks at 99 cents, and will also be available in premium format.Now, one must ask the question, if DRM is the problem, then why continue to offer DRM-laden tracks at all? Jobs said that consumers will have choice, and that not everyone will want to pay more for better quality. But, again, if DRM is the problem, then why have DRM on the cheaper tracks? The other difference is quality; users who pay less have fewer rights, and lower quality. Does that really make any sense at all? I can understand that Apple can’t raise prices across the board–remember, this is a 30% price increase for “premium” tracks–but once those tracks are in the wild, it won’t matter if there are DRMed versions. (Just as it doesn’t matter now, since CDs have no DRM.)

After Jobs’ article was published in February, many naysayers criticized him, saying that he was simply tossing out an idea that no one would agree to. Ha!, say I. Sure, it took time for companies to get together and come up with something, but two months is really a very short time for such a major change. (You can imagine that there was a great deal of negotiations to get to this point.) I think we can expect other labels to follow suit. Jobs said, during the press conference, that this option would be available to other labels, so all the independents who want to sell their music without DRM will now be able to do so.

Apple gets too bonuses from this–higher revenue from the iTunes Store (though Apple’s profits are slim, and the Store is not intended to make a lot of money), and, more importantly, more iPod sales. After all, double the bit rate of music tracks sold, and you’ll have fewer songs to fit on an iPod. While most iPod owners don’t buy music from the iTunes Store–or not much–this could be the beginning of a generalization of higher bit rates, which will certainly lead users to need higher-capacity iPods.

To sum up, this is a true earthquake. I can imagine that some executives at other record labels have had to change their underwear today. As Jobs said, there are leaders and there are followers, and EMI has clearly staked out first place in this new market. And Apple, as often, has been the prime mover in this change.

What Happens when the Machine Stops?

On good days, everything seems to run smoothly. My Internet connection is perky, my cellphone shows four bars, and the satellite TV pipes hundreds of channels into my home, for me to choose from as my mood changes. Bits and bytes rain down on me all day long, from wireless networks, cables and wires, and from satellites too distant to spot. Email gets here in seconds from anywhere around the world, and web pages load faster than I can read their headlines.

Yet those are the good days. There are other days when glitches in the system underscore the fragility of the entire grid. Yesterday, for example, after the heat reached the high 80s, powerful thunderstorms, as often seen here in the Alps, poured streams of water on my house for a couple of hours. At the same time, my DSL connection dropped, and the satellite TV showed nothing. While these down periods are rare, they happen. And that’s when things are running fine.What about the day that the machine stops? As prophesied by E. M. Forster in his 1909 story The Machine Stops, a society that depends too much on such tools will find it difficult to function if something big goes wrong. I recall the blackout in New York City on July 13, 1977, a hot and humid summer day when lightning struck two power lines, cutting off power for most of the city for twenty-four hours. The entire city was at a standstill, and many people simply lost control, looting and rioting, while others just sat around scratching their heads, wondering why there was such a reaction. And people didn’t have cellphones or Internet access back then. The more recent blackout in New York City, in August of 2003, had a shorter effect, with power being turned back on much quicker, but for those addicted to their Crackberries and cellphones, it must have been a tough day.

Today, I’m not thinking about the big machine stopping; I’m wondering about the smaller ones. Take, for example, any service from which you purchase digital content that uses DRM (digital rights management) to control your access. While you may think of iTunes or competing music services, or of Audible.com, the purveyor of audiobooks, you may also use software that needs to phone home from time to time to check your license. (This is relatively common with high-end vertical applications.) Even certain versions of Windows need to check with Microsoft’s servers to validate your operating system and allow you to work.

But let’s look more closely at the question of digital music and audiobooks. While I have few worries of Apple going out of business in the next decade or so (for music purchased from iTunes) or of Microsoft filing for Chapter 11 (Windows Media files are used by most competing music download services), smaller companies offer no long-term guarantee. Take Audible.com as an example. The company went through some tough times not long ago; imagine if it indeed went bankrupt (and I am not in any way suggesting that Audible will indeed go bankrupt or have any other problems). What would Audible users do to listen to the audiobooks they’ve purchased? While you generally only have to authorize your computer once, you still need to reauthorize if you buy a new computer. So in the case of a meltdown, you’d be able to listen to your audiobooks for a while, but when you got a new computer you’d be out of luck. (This assumes, of course, that Audible or any other such company is not bought out by a bigger fish who keeps the authorization scheme up and running.)

If the machine did stop, what rights would consumers have? While it’s trivial to “record” audio from a computer, using software designed to record what the computer is playing back, effectively saving audiobooks in other, non-DRMed formats, this violates copyright laws. Yet if a company such as Audible were to go belly-up, would consumers be in the wrong if they “converted” their audiobooks in this manner? The same goes for music; it’s easy to burn music to CDs then re-rip them in other formats–less so for audiobooks, given their length–would this be a violation of copyright? (In my opinion, no, since there would be no other way to access the content.)

As far as I know, there has yet to be a case where a company selling DRM-laden media has shut down in such a way as to affect users’ access to content they have purchased. But things happen, and, one day, one of these small machines is going to stop. What will we consumers be allowed to do? And how will we be able to do it? While I’m not against the concept of DRM to protect the rights of authors and distributors, I have to admit that this thought is worrisome. When you consider that you can still play any LPs you bought fifty years ago, and all the CDs you’ve bought since the 80s, the idea that you’ll be unable to listen to digital media after just a few years is chilling.

Getting the Most out of Classical Music with iTunes and the iPod

[Update, September 2006. Apple introduced gapless playback to iTunes 7 and to the latest iPods, making the questions of joining tracks, as explained below, moot in many cases. See this article for an explanation of gapless playback.

However, if you have an older iPod (older than the iPod video or nano), you won’t benefit from this feature. In addition, you may still want to join tracks to be able to play music at random, playing entire works, rather than disparate movements. So much of this article remains valid today.]

While Apple is aggressively marketing its iPod to the younger generation, through its ads and commercials featuring black silhouettes dancing to hip-hop and rock music, the iPod is also a valuable device for listening to classical music. However, to get the most out of this type of music, you need to reconsider the way you rip your CDs.

I’ve got eclectic musical tastes. My iPod contains music by the Grateful Dead, The Durutti Column, The Clash, Brian Eno, moe. and Widespread Panic, as well as Bach, Haydn, Handel and Schubert. I’ve long explored all types of music, and the capacity of my iPod lets me carry a diverse selection of tunes with me.

Read more

What is Gapless Playback on the iPod and in iTunes? (Update)

One of the major announcements that Apple made on September 12 was that the latest video iPod (the 5G model) offers gapless playback, and that this feature is available for previous video iPods when updated with the latest firmware. While those who know what gapless playback means embraced this with a loud “Huzzah!”, others are scratching their heads trying to figure out what this means. Here’s an overview of what gapless playback is, how it works, and why you might want it.

Gapless playback is simply the ability for the iPod to play music with no artificial gaps between tracks. For most music, you’ll never notice the difference, but if you listen to operas, dance mixes, or classic progressive rock albums (the standard examples are Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), you’ll hear a jarring half-second space between tracks that are meant to continue seamlessly. This lurch is the audio equivalent of an elevator dropping a floor suddenly, and ruins the listening experience. Fans of live music (The Grateful Dead, and other jambands) especially hate this, since this type of music often has songs that segue from one to another with no break. Finally, Apple answered the call, making the new iPod the only current portable music player that offers gapless playback. (Note: naysayers will point out that the Rio Karma has gapless playback; I said that no current portable music players offer this feature. The Rio Karma is no longer being sold.)

When I wrote about gapless playback here about a year ago, I offered a workaround that would allow classical music fans to rip their music so it could be gapless. The idea was that you simply join tracks when ripping albums, so instead of multiple tracks with numerous hiccoughs, you’d have a single track for an entire work. This is okay, but it’s a workaround; you wouldn’t be able to find which track you were listening to. Now, with gapless playback, operas can have individual tracks, and you won’t heard the difference.

Of course, there’s a down side to this: now classical music fans who did rip their music with joined tracks will probably want to re-rip these discs; I know I’ll be re-ripping all my operas. Sigh.

So how does gapless playback work? You probably noticed that the first time you launched iTunes, the program took a few minutes to analyze your music for gapless playback. iTunes looked at your tracks to determine if there was no silence at their ends to flag them as tracks that would flow smoothly into the following tracks. This works in iTunes, as well as with all 5G iPods and the new iPod nano. However, this does not work with previous iPod models. Curiously, this process works automatically, though there is a “Part of a gapless album” tag that can be set for individual tracks. It’s not clear if this tag exists to turn on gapless playback or to turn it off. Initial reports say it’s not needed for gapless playback (it certainly isn’t needed with iTunes); I’m awaiting a new iPod to test it there and figure out exactly what it’s for. (Yes, I don’t yet own a video iPod.)

Stay tuned for an update to this article in a week or so when I’ve fully figured out how this tag affects playback on the iPod. For now, be happy (if you find gapless playback useful) or yawn if you don’t. I, for one, applaud the fact that Apple listened to its users and provided this needed feature.

Update: Apple has cleared up the question about the gapless tag. They say this tag only matters if you have crossfade playback turned on in iTunes, and it only affects playback from iTunes. All gapless albums are automatically detected and played as such on 5G iPods (video-capable iPods) and 2G iPod nanos (the latest versions of the nano).

iWish: iTunes “Works”

(Click here to view the above image full size: 108 K.)

I’ve written in the past about the complications of using iTunes and the iPod to store and play back classical music. Well, there’s a simple way that iTunes could improve the user experience for classical music fans, and it’s something that the iTunes Music Store already uses.

[Since I first posted this article in late 2004, nothing has changed. I’m re-posting it now just in case anyone at Apple is reading my blog, and happens to notice this. We classical music listeners need this functionality in iTunes and the iPod.]The iTunes Music Store lets you purchase “works” for many classical albums. While some are simply presented in a list of movements, others have works grouped together. As you can see in the above screen shot, Apple groups multi-movement works together to make it easier to purchase single works rather than entire albums; it enters the name of the work in the Grouping tag. But why doesn’t Apple use this same possibility in iTunes after you buy the music? And why can’t you use this same grouping in iTunes for your own music?

While I point out in this article that it’s easy to join tracks when importing them, this has drawbacks: you can’t see the names of individual parts of a work (which is especially annoying when listening to an opera or other long work with many parts) and you can no longer choose to listen to a specific part or movement.

Clearly, iTunes has this ability; at least for the iTunes Music Store. This would be a great feature to provide in a future version of iTunes, not only for classical music fans, but even for those who want to group their albums together in this way. In fact, you can see this in action on the iTunes Music Store listing for the Complete U2 set. Each album is listed at one level with the contents of the album at the next level.

Writing Conversation: An Analysis of Speech Events in E-mail Mailing Lists

Nearly ten years ago, in what was another life, I completed a Master’s degree in applied linguistics with Aston University in Birmingham, UK. My dissertation was about a subject that was, at the time, relatively new: e-mail.

I’ve had this on my web site ever since, and I have received a great deal of feedback about it over the years. While it probably won’t interest many of my readers, I thought it was worth dusting off and mentioning here on Kirkville. So, if sociolinguistics interests you at all, you can read the entire paper here.

Enjoy!

Imprecision in Journalism: How the iTunes MiniStore was Reported

With the recent kerfuffle over the iTunes MiniStore and privacy, I have written several articles about the issue, been interviewed by a number of web and print media, been interviewed for podcasts, and invited on a national business channel to discuss the issue. This issue annoyed me from the beginning: the fact that iTunes was both sending personal data to Apple and other companies without warning users, and the fact that iTunes was displaying “recommendations” (that is, ads) when users were not “in” the iTunes Music Store.

But now that Apple has corrected this problem, what really annoys me is the level of journalism I have seen about the problem. From mistakes to clueless writing, from minor technical errors to stupid comments from writers who clearly no nothing about technology (and probably cannot read very well, since I and others have very clearly written about what the iTunes MiniStore does), these errors are legion.

So, here’s an overview of some of the statements I have found that are incorrect, and, in some cases, border on incompetent. Tell me how journalists can get something so simple so wrong…Nick Farrell, writing for The Inquirer, said the following: “There were claims that you had to be a computer expert to know how to switch the data collection facility off, which many of its users are not.” Nick, show me where anyone said that you need to be a computer expert to click a button or select a menu item… Do you run iTunes at all?

Many articles, including this one in the LA Times, an editorial to boot, said things such as, “Besides, Apple said, it didn’t store any of the information it received.” This comment makes me snicker. My friend Rob Griffiths, who wrote an article about the iTunes MiniStore shortly after I published mine. Griffiths received an email from a high-level Apple official to this effect (that Apple was not storing information), and added the following update to his article: “…an Apple official told Macworld that the iTunes MiniStore feature does not collect any information from users.” But at no time did Apple issue an official statement about the iTunes MiniStore. Media comments, such as those mentioned by the LA Times, suggest that this is the case, but they are simply relying on a comment from a journalist about an email he received. Sigh.

Louisa Hearn, writing for The Age in Australia, explains how the MiniStore displays a warning, but goes on to say “Although the MiniStore is turned on by default for new customers, a pointer at the bottom of the playlist page allows them to switch it on or off.” This one is interesting. The article includes a screen shot which shows the Turn on MiniStore button, but this journalist seems to think that the MiniStore is on regardless of this button? The button turns it on, not off, as the button says.

The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company), in an article about the iTunes MiniStore, repeats another fallacy that has spread, showing that their journalist didn’t do any fact-checking. “The software scans a user’s existing downloads and recommends new songs to buy,” the article says, which is blatantly false. The iTunes MiniStore only sends information about songs that users click. This suggests that iTunes is sending information about users’ entire libraries. You get an F, unnamed reporter, for this one.

PC Magazine took a different tack. In this article, they tried to sound like investigative network journalists, using advanced forensic techniques to get to the bottom of the question. Journalist Oliver Kaven says such wondrous things as, “Here at PC Magazine, we began dissecting the issue, one IP packet at a time.” Ooh, like CSI but with computers, right? He goes on to say, “We found that this can be prevented by minimizing the MiniStore application or by playing songs from a play list.” Hmm… He didn’t need a packet analyzer to find that no data was sent, but at least he was checking the facts. I reported this, saying, “However, when the MiniStore is hidden, iTunes does not send these requests. You can therefore protect yourself from Apple’s prying eyes by simply hiding the MiniStore,” as did several other web sites. However, “playing songs from a play list”? That’s not entirely correct. What he should have said was that the MiniStore only sends data when you click on a song. If you double-click a song to play it, iTunes sends information about that song, but not about subsequent songs in playlists or albums. Guilty of over-exaggeration, and of a minor error, PC Magazine tried to turn this into a detective story.

What surprises me in all this is that some of these “major media outlets”, such as the CBC or newspapers, have reported this issue with more errors than most bloggers. Not that I believe in the Easter bunny, especially given recent scandals at top-tier newspapers like the New York Times, but I would have thought that these media had better structures in place for fact-checking, and that the journalists are more qualified. This said, the above examples are only a handful of negative ones; there are many more, but a majority of the stories I read about this issue were correct.