iTunes: Apple’s New Spyware and Adware Application?

Yesterday’s update to iTunes 6.0.2 comes with a surprise: it’s spyware and adware.

Since Apple launched the iTunes Music Store, iTunes has been a compromise: both a music management program and sales portal, it clearly separated the two, offering separate icons for your Library and the Music Store in its Source list. But the latest update adds something new that I find invading: when you go to your library, you see a “MiniStore” at the bottom of the window. This is easily removed (either by clicking the MiniStore button in the bottom-right section of the iTunes window, or by selecting Edit > Hide MiniStore), but it’s not just its presence that’s a problem.Cory Doctorow, writing on BoingBoing today, pointed out that this MiniStore displays songs that are similar to those you are playing, if you listen to music with iTunes. (If not, you see a generic display with New Releases, Top Songs and Top Albums.) Cory’s comments are very clear:

I love iTunes because it’s a clean music player. But no amount of clean UI is worth surrendering my privacy for — I wouldn’t buy a stereo that phoned home to Panasonic and told it what I was listening to; I wouldn’t buy a shower radio that delivered my tuning preferences to Blaupunkt. I certainly am not comfortable with Apple shoulder-surfing me while I listen to digital music, particularly if they’re doing so without my meaningful, informed consent and without disclosing what they intend on doing with that data.

I stand firmly beside Cory’s comments. Apple has overstepped its limits, and this spyware (because it sends information to a server) and adware (because it displays information to attempt to sell you products) is a very serious breach of the trust I have long had in Apple’s products.

In order to examine this further, I used the trusty tcpdump command (a Terminal command that examines every packet of data that leaves a computer), and checked its output while playing music both with the MiniStore visible and with it hidden. In the former case, when the MiniStore is displayed, iTunes sends queries to the iTunes Music Store (this domain: ax.phobos.apple.com.edgesuite.net/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/ministore) and to an Apple metrics server (metrics.apple.com). It also send some cookie information, which I have not yet been able to decipher. (And this is not limited to music–when I started playing an audiobook, the MiniStore changed accordingly as well.)

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. Nevertheless, the fact that Apple is both sending information from your copy of iTunes, along with cookie information that may identify you, as well as sending song information to a metrics server, seems to be a serious breach of trust. (And their end-user license agreement, or EULA, contains no language that suggests they will do so.) Also, playing music via the Party Shuffle does not display the MiniStore, nor does it cause the MiniStore’s display to change when you shift to your Library.

[Edit: after more analysis, this does not send info to Apple when you are playing music, but rather when you click on a song. So if you start playing a song by double-clicking, it will send info to the iTunes Music Store and retrieve suggestions. But if the song is in a playlist, the MiniStore display will not change when the next song begins.]

So, for now, if you don’t want iTunes phoning home–and you may not want Apple to record the music you listen to–you can simply hide the MiniStore. I find Apple remiss for not being forthright about this feature, both in its EULA and other information in iTunes. But I have a feeling that this issue will be making some waves in the immediate future.

[Edit: Rob Griffiths, writing in an editorial for Macworld, writes, “… an Apple official told Macworld that the iTunes MiniStore feature does not collect any information from users.” I’m a bit unsure about the use of the term “collect”; I’ll read it as “store and save”. However, this does not change the fact that Apple is sending information to a server without warning users, and that neither their license agreement nor their help tell this to users.]


See other articles about the iTunes MiniStore:

iTunes: Apple’s New Spyware and Adware Application?

The iTunes MiniStore Debacle: What Apple Did Wrong

iSpy: Still More on the iTunes MiniStore and Privacy

The iTunes MiniStore: Fact and Fiction

iWish: Multiple iTunes Libraries

The success of the iPod is creating new problems for many iPod and iTunes users. If you are a multi-iPod family, which is becoming increasingly common, you can no longer simply connect an iPod to your computer and sync your music automatically. If you have multiple iPods, you need to jump through some hoops to manage them. You can either create separate user accounts, each with its unique iTunes library, but end up with duplicate songs and waste space, or you can set one iPod to sync automatically, and the other(s) manually, which requires you to choose which music you want to put on the manually-synced iPods.

There is, of course, a solution to this, and Apple would be wise to introduce such a feature in iTunes: multiple libraries.With multiple libraries, iTunes would be able to manage different selections of music from the same set of song files. Say, for example, I want to have my 40 GB iPod copy all of my music. (Well, in my case it’s not all my music, since I have enough to put on three iPods…) I create one library, containing only the music I want to put on that iPod, and link the iPod to that library. iTunes should allow the creation of separate, named libraries, and the iTunes preferences should allow you to choose which library gets synced to each iPod.

I have one 40 GB iPod for classical music, and another for the rest of my music (jazz, rock, audiobooks, jam bands, etc.). So I’d create one library for my classical music and another for all the rest; when connecting each iPod, iTunes would be able to sync its music easily.

And if I then want to sync music to my iPod shuffle, without the Autofill feature or creating a special playlist for my shuffle, I’d simply switch to the library I set up for that iPod, and let it sync automatically.

Now, this scenario is rare – not that many people have several iPods for themselves, but it is common to have multiple iPods in a family. So each family member could create a library in iTunes, without having a separate user account (which most families don’t use anyway), allowing them to easily manage all the music they want. Husbands and wives could have their own libraries, each using only the music they like. And kids could also have their own libraries, syncing easily when they want to.

There are two advantages to this: the first is obviously the easier syncing of music from a single computer to multiple iPods. But the second is just as important: using a single set of music makes it much easier to back up all the music at once, and avoids having doubles in different user accounts.

Apple is always striving to make their software easier to use and more practical, and this is a feature that would be a boon to many iPod users. Let’s hope we see it soon.

The Trouble with Newspapers

Not long ago, I posted an article about online newspapers here on my site. My complaints were more about form and functionality than content, but I did suggest that newspapers have an important role to play.

Joseph Epstein has written an interesting article in Commentary called Are Newspapers Doomed?, which examines the more serious questions of the content of newspapers as they are faced with increasing competition from audiovisual media and the Internet. I heartily agree with Epstein, especially with his conclusion:

My own preference would be for a few serious newspapers to take the high road: to smarten up instead of dumbing down, to honor the principles of integrity and impartiality in their coverage, and to become institutions that even those who disagreed with them would have to respect for the reasoned cogency of their editorial positions. I imagine such papers directed by editors who could choose for me—as neither the Internet nor I on my own can do—the serious issues, questions, and problems of the day and, with the aid of intelligence born of concern, give each the emphasis it deserves.

Beyond that, I wonder about a world where people consider that even attempting to understand the world around them, and voting for their leaders based on little more than beauty contests. I wonder how people feel that they are part of a society that they shun at every opportunity, yet get flustered when things go wrong. How they could elect an American president who is so averse to telling the truth about anything, yet continue to accept new lies on almost a daily basis.

This won’t change. Not overnight, at least. It would take much more than a few good newspapers to turn passive couch potatoes into interested voters and citizens. But one can always hope, right?

The [2005] Mac mini is a Lemon

I’ve had my share of Macs over the years, most of them good (fortunately). I’ve never been stung by any of the more serious problems that have resulted from poor design, such as the iBook logic board problems or others. But today I’m writing about what I think is truly a lemon: the Mac mini.The Mac mini is a great idea: for $500, you get a relatively fast computer, one that is, above all, tiny and quiet. Designed probably to attract switchers from the Windows world, the Mac mini offers a limited feature set, but one that is largely sufficient for most users.

The Mac mini, as you know, comes naked in its box: no screen, no mouse, and no keyboard. This, again, allows switchers to simply hook up their existing equipment, or even use a KVM to switch between a PC and a Mac. This means that you have to make sure your existing peripherals work with the Mac mini. For a mouse and keyboard, this is no problem; the Mac mini will work with just about any USB devices (I haven’t heard about any incompatibilities, but it’s likely that any devices, especially mice or trackballs, that require drivers, will only offer basic functions unless there are Mac OS X versions of their drivers.

However, the real problem comes from the display. I guess that, in most cases, your display will work. You probably have a better chance of it working if you have a DVI display, as opposed to a VGA display. In my experience, however, the Mac mini is just not up to par for VGA displays. I have two Sony CRTs, about 2 and 3 years old. The first Mac mini I got gave a very dim display on one of them, and a green display on the other. No amount of adjustments, to either the monitors or the Mac mini’s Display preferences, changed these display problems. (Both these displays work perfectly well on other computers, one connected to an old iMac and PC, and another to a PC.) I was disappointed, especially when I saw all the problems on Apple’s discussions boards about display issues.

At this point, I was ready to just send it back for a refund – which was possible, since I bought it from an on-line dealer here in France who provides a no-questions-asked guarantee. But friends suggested that I try again, thinking that it could be just a bad unit, or a bad DVI-VGA adapter. Alas, when the second unit came, I connected it, and the same problems were present. Not it is entirely possible that my monitors are not “compatible” with the Mac mini; however, they are name-brand CRTs, with no special features that would prevent them from working with other computers (as I see daily at home). It seems that this is not an isolated problem: here’s a page on xlr8yourmac.com showing how common the problem is, and pointing out that the Mac mini simply does not put out enough power to drive many VGA monitors.

So, Apple’s got another lemon, and they’re clearly aware of it, but they don’t seem to be reacting to this widespread problem. Shame on you, Apple; at least you could set up a page saying which monitors you’ve tested the mini with so users can save all these hassles. You do this for some other devices, such as printers that are compatible with the AirPort Express, or CD/DVD drives compatible with iTunes.

Update, February, 2011: It’s worth noting that, since I first wrote this article in 2005, the Mac mini has changed quite a bit. And I also have a DVI display. In fact, as I wrote in this Macworld article, the Mac mini is now my Mac of choice. So the problems I highlight in this article, regarding video display, are no longer an issue.

On My Wish List: A Voice-Controlled iPod

A friend gave me an idea the other day. What if you could control your iPod by voice, in the same way that you can dial numbers on a cellphone? What if you had a small hands-free mic on the headphone cable that you could use to issue commands: Play, Pause, Back, Forward, Next, Previous, Louder, Softer… ?

An interesting idea indeed. But let’s go a step further. What if you could record, through this mic, the names of playlists, albums or songs, the way you record names on a cellphone, and start them playing as well? Let’s face it – when the iPod’s in your pocket, it’s a hassle to take it out and change what’s playing. Sure, with the wired remote (in my opinion, an indispensable accessory) you can perform the same actions as with the click wheel or the buttons on the front of your iPod. But you can’t access specific playlists, albums or songs.

This would be great for lots of people. Imagine when you’re walking home in the freezing cold and you don’t want to take your gloves off and get your iPod out of your pocket or its case? Or when you’re jogging, biking, hang-gliding or even driving and can’t take the time to look at the iPod’s screen? Or when you’re in an intimite situation and just have to get that Barry White music on – you don’t want to have to stop, find the iPod (which is plugged into speakers in this type of situation) and change the playlist.

The technology is there. Is the need real though? I think it is, for many people. What do you think?

Update: Les Posen pointed out that he has already suggested this. Thanks for pointing this out, Les.


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On My Wish List: iTunes Music Store Radio Stations

So, you know that iTunes lets you listen to Internet radio. That’s great, and it lets you discover lots of music you’ve never heard before. It’s especially good if, like me, you live in the country and don’t have many FM radio stations.

But there should be more. Apple should introduce iTunes Music Store radio stations, to play selected tracks available from the iTunes Music Store. Why? Well, when you go into a bricks-and-mortar store, you can see thousands of CDs. When you go into the iTunes Music Store, you only see a few dozen for each genre. Okay, up that to at least 100 for each, since you can look at the list of top albums or top songs. But that’s not much. Especially if you aren’t interested in the best-sellers.The iTunes Music Store is great when you know what you are looking for – you can search by song, artist, album or composer, and listen to previews. But what about all the other music you’ll never hear because you’ve never heard of it? If Apple were to create one Internet radio station for each genre, listeners could discover much more music. I can imagine that a simple double-click on the song name in the iTunes display would take you to that song on the music store.

The reason behind this idea goes beyond simple commercialism. Sure, Apple would sell more music, but it would also allow more artists to get their music heard. Listen to any FM radio station today and you’ll hear about 30 songs in rotation, over and over. We need variety; musicians need exposure; and Apple would get sales. Everyone would be happy.


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Apple’s Real Revolution: iTunes


The media are all focused on the resounding success of the iPod – by all accounts, Apple should reach the 10 million mark by the end of the year, which is great for Apple, for its stock price, and for my forthcoming book on the iPod and iTunes.

But while the iPod has attracted a whole new group of users to Apple’s fold – notably Windows users – the real revolution is not in the hardware, but in the software that manages the iPod. iTunes is much more than simply a tool for managing music, and, in the near future, is likely to spearhead the real digital content revolution. iTunes started out several years ago as a simple program for organizing, managing and playing MP3 files, and for burning CDs from these music files. Apple was not a trailblazer in this area; there had already been several other programs that played music files. As it progressed over the years, it developed powerful new features, such as new file formats like AAC and Apple Lossless, and the ability to sync music to the iPod, when the portable music device was released. But the real innovation – and the part that merits the word “revolution” – came when Apple added the iTunes Music Store.

If you’ve never bought music from the iTunes Music Store (iTMS), the hallmark of the process is simplicity. You create an account, enter your credit card number, find the music you want, then: click! Download. Click! Download. It’s as simple as that. You can buy one song, start downloading it, then go browse and buy more songs. When you purchase music like this, you don’t even notice the time it takes for songs to download (unless you are connected to the Internet with a modem). If you purchase entire albums, it will seem to take longer, but if you have a relatively decent Internet connection, you’ll be able to download an album in minutes.

Revolutionary? Not yet… Because there’s more. Sure, the iTMS lets you download music with a few clicks, but the real revolution will come later, when the iTMS sells more than just music.

It’s tempting to predict the future, though perilous in the computer industry. But looking at the iTMS and the way it works shows that Apple’s real revolution is in having designed a simple, fast, efficient and painless way to sell digital content. Sure, they’re only selling music now. But just wait…

Why does Apple offer movie trailers in the iTMS? Certainly not because they sell movies… yet. But the interface is there; all they need is for users to have broadband fast enough to download movies (and, of course, the MPAA’s acceptance of Apple’s digital rights management (DRM) system). It seems almost obvious that Apple will, in the near future, sell movies through the iTMS. When you’ve gotten consumers used to using a system that works, that is easy to use, and easy to understand, it makes sense to leverage it for other purposes. Those movie trailers are simply a way to get users prepared, to have them think of iTunes as more than just for music.

But why stop there? I’ve already suggested that Apple should make an e-book reader, and focus on selling periodicals. The iTMS could easily deliver that kind of content as well; after all, Apple has already shown that they can deliver PDF files through the iTMS. Why not sell magazines and newspapers using the same interface? Users could buy individual issues, which would download as easily as songs do today; or they could buy subscriptions that are provided through the iTMS. In the latter case, you’d simply need to connect your e-book reader to your computer to get the latest issues that iTunes has already downloaded in the background. Or you could read them on your computer.

The digital content revolution is only just beginning. Music is the first step, since it is one of the most popular forms of entertainment, and it ends up being one of the simplest to transfer over the wires. But anything that can be digitized can be sold in the same way. Of course, there are still limits: music, movies, books, magazines, newspapers; there’s no way to download pizza, at least not yet. But if you look at the numbers that these different forms of content represent, you’ll realize that Apple is on track to becoming much more than a hardware and software company. With iTunes, and the iTunes Music Store, Apple has taken the first steps toward becoming the leader in providing downloadable digital content.


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On My Wish List: the Apple iServe

Apple has regaled us with a new iPod, with a color screen and photo display functions, rounding out the iPod range. There are now three distinct types of iPods: the mini, the 4G iPod and the iPod Photo. So, for a while, we can consider that Apple will rest and allow these iPods to sell a bit.

In the meantime, it is clear that Apple’s recent foray into non-computer devices for consumers has been profitable in many ways. The iPod has boosted Apple’s earnings, profit margin, and share price, and has turned the company, once again, into the darling of the business world.

So it’s time for Apple to release another innovation: the Apple iServe.First, don’t assume that I have any inside information on the possible existance of such a device: this is merely what I would like to see. But this idea is based on existing Apple technology and would follow what seems to be the direction Apple will be taking in the years to come.

The Apple iServe would be a home server, a headless Mac (one without a monitor) that would centralize all the elements that make up a user’s digital hub: music files, photos, and videos. It could also store other personal files such as word processing documents and spreadsheets. Instead of each user storing their files on their own computer, they could put everything in one place, providing simpler access to other users, and allowing for backups of all users’ files simultaneously.

This is most useful for “digital hub” files: music, photos and videos. Why should each user’s computer contain all their music files, many of which may be duplicated on another user’s Mac? (Considering that the iTunes Music Store allows up to 5 computers to play the files, this is not a violation of copyright; the same is true for music files that users rip from their own CDs.)

In this scenario, all the Macs on a home network would be connected to the server via AirPort – the server could contain an AirPort base station, or simply be connected to a base station or an AirPort Express. An Ethernet jack would allow the iServe to be connected to a wired network, which could include other Macs without AirPort or computers running Windows or Linux. Users would be able to access shared files by simply mounting the server on their desktop, or would even be able to play music using iTunes built-in music sharing – the iServe would run iTunes itself, or a simpler version of the program, to provide a shared library to other computers on the network.

But let’s not stop there. iPhoto offers photo album sharing, so users can access photos on the iServe from any Mac. Videos would be a bit more complex, since iMovie is merely an editing and authoring tool, but, again, the technology exists to provide shared video in a manner similar to iTunes’ shared music.

If the iServe were to go one step further, it could even be used in the living room to record video from a TV, set-top box or decoder; the Apple version of the TiVo would be a welcome competitor to Microsoft’s forays into this area. Or Apple could simply work hand-in-hand with TiVo to provide a seamless connection to their TV recorder.

The iServe would run a slimmed-down version of Mac OS X Server, one that allows simple management of users and groups, either through an Apple Remote Desktop server or through a web-browser interface. Since the iServe should be small – remember the cube? – it wouldn’t need a monitor, keyboard and mouse, though it should be possible to connect these if desired.

The Apple iServe would be the perfect solution to the once-hyped convergence of computers and other digital entertainment devices. If it were priced right (less than $500; ideally even cheaper than that), Apple could spearhead a new world of home computing. And, with a small business model, offering more advanced server features, the same iServe could help Apple get a stronger foothold in the critical market of businesses who need such features but cannot afford the time or the complication of full-scale server solutions.

This is just an idea, of course, but who knows? Maybe Apple will surprise us…


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