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.

What’s Up with the U2 Free Album Download Numbers?

u2-album-cover.jpgIt’s an interesting turn of events that a free album, given to all iTunes Store customers, has elicited such a wide variety of reactions. Some people are delighted that the album is free; others incensed that Apple is forcing specific music on them. I wrote an article for Macworld about how to hide the album – because you cannot delete it from your iTunes library – which has been extremely popular. Lots of people don’t like U2, and don’t want this album.

But I’m curious about the numbers that are being reported. Re/code claims that “iTunes users have downloaded more than 2 million copies” of the album. That’s 0.4% of the 500 million iTunes Store accounts. Is it possible that so few people have actually downloaded this free album?

This album can show up in your iTunes library, or on your iOS device, in several ways. If you have Settings > Music > Show All Music turned on on your iOS device, you’ll see all your purchases (except for those you’ve hidden, using the technique I explain in my Macworld article). And if you have Show iTunes in the Cloud purchases checked in iTunes’ Store preferences, the album will display in your iTunes library. Presumably, if you have automatic downloads turned on, you’ll also have downloaded it. (I can’t confirm this; I don’t have this feature turned on, and I’ve heard conflicting reports about whether the album downloads automatically.)

So the above suggests that people will see the album in their iTunes library, or on their iOS devices, but could only two million people have actually downloaded it? U2’s last album sold a bit more than a million copies – very low for this band – but I’d have expected more people to want to grab a freebie. Unless the fact that it’s free makes it seem less worth listening to…

What about you, dear reader? Did you download the album? Did it show up in your iTunes library automatically? And did it download automatically?

Two-Step Authentication Is Too Complicated for Many People

Apple’s recent nude selfie hack illustrated the need for two-step or two-factor authentication (TFA) as a way of hardening the protection for online accounts. You may be familiar with this from banks, some of which use systems where you generate a one-time authentication code that you enter together with your password. It ensures that access to your account requires both something you know (your password) and something you have (a device that generates a code; an app; a cellphone to receive a code by SMS).

Here’s how Apple explains the process:


In practice, however, this is problematic. I use TFA on Dropbox; whenever I log into Dropbox on a new device, I immediately get a code sent to my iPhone. I enter that code, and I can access my files. But, the other day, I tried to turn on TFA for Google. I went to step 1, where I entered my user name and password, then step 2, where I gave them my cellphone number. Then I waited; and waited. I then clicked a link saying I hadn’t received the code, and I clicked a link to have it sent again. And again. Then the Google site recommended I have them send a voice mail instead of a text message. I waited. And I waited. I finally got a voice call with the code, but when I entered it, it had already expired. I never got any of the text messages, which I requested four times. Needless to say, the way Google works, I would be effectively locked out of my account with no way at all to get back in.

I’ve thought about activating TFA for my iCloud account, but have you ever looked at Apple’s FAQ for two-step verification for an Apple ID? I make my living writing about computers, and telling people how to use them, and I’m daunted by this page. I once started the process, but it was so scary – full of warnings that if I didn’t print out the Recovery Key, I might never be able to get access to my iCloud data. Needless to say, I gave up.

Two-factor authentication is a powerful tool; my bank uses this, and a banker told me that, since they introduced it, fraud has essentially disappeared. But the way it is implemented for online accounts is problematic, and dangerous. Accessing my data is far too important to trust to a system that can go wrong, as Google’s did, or that is too confusing, as Apple’s is. There has to be a better way.

Why ApplePay Isn’t a Big Deal in Europe

Aside from hardware in yesterday’s Apple announcement, the big new feature was ApplePay. Using NFC (near field communication), you can pay with your credit or debit card using your iPhone. The main advantages to this are security and quicker payments, but Europe uses chip-and-PIN cards, rather than swipe cards, so security is much better; levels of card fraud are substantially lower over here. Sure, it’ll be a bit quicker to pay with ApplePay, but contactless cards exist here, which smooth the process. (I have to admit, I have a contactless card, and have never used it; I think I’ve only seen one merchant who had a contactless terminal in the year and a half that I’ve lived in the UK.)

Yes, ApplePay is nifty technology, but many of its advantages won’t make a difference here. For example, one is always at risk, in the US, of having a card copied when giving it to someone to be swiped. Here in Europe, no one swipes your card; you insert it yourself into a card reader, then enter a PIN. If you’re at a restaurant, the waiter brings a portable reader to your table. So your card never leaves your sight.

There are some advantages to online purchases with ApplePay, but, again, most cards over here use some form of two-factor authentication when purchasing online.

ApplePay is a big deal for people in the US, which is decades behind Europe as far as card payments are concerned, but it may take a while for it to be used in Europe. There’s little incentive to banks or merchants here to adopt such a system. We’ll have to see how this pans out.

Update: Here’s a New York Times article, Apple Pay Tries to Solve a Problem That Really Isn’t a Problem, that says a lot of what I do above, and goes into a bit more detail about whether or not this is a problem even in the US.

Apple, U2, and a Painful End to a New Product Presentation

Apple yesterday announced a new iPhone, and a wearable, the Apple Watch. The presentation was fraught with difficulty, at least for those not attending live. The live video stream was a massive failure – apparently because of some errors in Javascript on the Apple web page hosting the stream.

And the end of the event was a bit embarrassing. U2 gave a strained performance of a new song, and, following that, the banter between Bono and Tim Cook was uncomfortable at best. This ended with a poorly-scripted exchanged between the two about giving away the band’s new album for free. Which, in effect, Apple has done: giving it to every one of the iTunes Store’s 500 million customers. And it’s not just free if you want to download it; Apple added it to customers’ music libraries, or purchased music lists, so even if you don’t want it, you have it now.

There was a severe disconnect between the smooth, subtle presentation of the Apple Watch and the clunky performance of a new U2 song that sounds like so many others. And compared to the scripted-to-the-second presentation that Apple gave of its new products, the improvised banter at the end came as a surprise.

Cult of Mac was very harsh, saying that this performance was a swan song for iTunes, pointing out that no one buys music any more, yadda yadda. I disagree with that, but I do feel that U2 is on the other side of the generation gap that Apple is targeting with its new products. They could have chosen a band with a bit more cred with the younger generations.

The Wall Street Journal gives some background on the deal behind this free album. Pointing out how the band’s sales figures have been dropping – they sold 4 million the 2000 All That You Can Leave Behind, 3.3 million copies of their How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and only 1.1 million units of the 2009 release, No Line on the Horizon. It’s almost as if U2 would be embarrassed by the sales figures they’d realize with a new album, so making a deal around a free release has no downside for them.

The Wall Street Journal says:

“As part of the deal forged by the band, manager Guy Oseary (hired by U2 last year to replace longtime manager Paul McGuinness) and Universal, Apple also made plans to use the first single from the album, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” as a central element of a global, 30-day television advertising campaign for its new iPhones and Apple Watch. The campaign is believed to be worth around $100 million, according to a person familiar with the talks.”

That’s a lot of money. A lot more than they’d make from, say, fewer than a million copies of their new album. It’s telling that Bono told Cook that they had made a few albums since their last release in 2009, but “we just haven’t released them.” Maybe they were waiting for an opportunity like this, to make more money than they could possibly make by turning the entire album into an advertisement.

Apple Now Emails You When You Sign into iCloud on the Web

There is always a fine balance between security and usability. Apple was strongly criticized because of the iCloud selfie breach, and Tim Cook announced that the company would be implementing new security procedures.

As of today, one of them is live: if you sign into iCloud on the web, you’ll get an email:


This is interesting, but is it useful? First, if you get one of these every time you sign into iCloud on the web, it’ll just be a bother. Sure, if you didn’t sign into iCloud, you can reset your password, but too much security hampers usability. People will, over time, get tired of these messages and just delete them.

And, what if I just accessed iCloud around the same time someone broke into my account? Will I get two emails? Or will I just assume that the email I get is for my access?

In any case, by the time you get the email, it might be too late.

As my friend and editor Michael Cohen pointed out:

“Of course, if someone DID sign into your iCloud account via a Web browser, that person would see the email, too… and could reset your password, locking you out! Unless you use 2-factor authentication; then it might be harder to do the last.”

Stop Safari from Asking You if You Want Notifications from Websites

Are you annoyed by Safari asking you if you want to get push notifications from some websites? Here’s how you can turn those messages off.

Safari for OS X has a feature called Push Notifications, which lets you get notifications on your Mac – banners or alerts – when a web site wants to let you know about a great new article. I find these quite annoying, and I’ve turned them off, but I realized recently that a lot of people don’t know how to keep Safari from displaying the dialog.

When you go to a website that uses this feature, you’ll see a sheet in Safari like this:


It’s annoying to have to click Don’t Allow each time you land on a website using Push Notifications, but you can turn these dialogs off in Safari’s preferences. Choose Safari > Preferences, then click on Notifications. Uncheck the option at the bottom, Allow websites to ask for permission to send push notifications.


If you’ve already allowed certain websites, you’ll still get notifications; you just won’t get asked any more. And you can remove any of the websites that have asked – whether you have allowed or denied these notifications – by selecting them in the same window, then clicking Remove, or nuke them all by clicking Remove All.

The iTunes Store is Big Business

Apple had an earnings call yesterday, and, as often, they’ve been printing money. $7.7 billion in profit in the last quarter; the iTunes Store generated $4.5 billion in revenue. As MacRumors says:

For the first fiscal nine months of the year, Apple CEO Tim Cook said iTunes software and services were the fastest growing part of Apple’s business. iTunes billings grew 25 percent year over year to an all time quarterly high, largely due to the App Store.

In the third quarter, iTunes generated $4.5 billion in revenue, an increase of 12 percent year over year.

The iTunes Store, which was once a break-even service, is now big business. Many tech companies would love to have that kind of revenue for their entire business, and for Apple, it’s just a small part of their total numbers. Amazing.

Note that the lion’s share of the increase is coming from the App Store, not from music or videos. What started as a music store has morphed into a powerful digital content storefront.

Elegy for the iPod, the device that transformed Apple

413440_g1-100358886-large.jpgIn my latest Macworld article, I look back at the history of the iPod, but also the history of the portable music player. As the iPod’s sales are decreasing, new devices are replacing it: iPhones, iPads, and even, perhaps, the mythical iWatch.

I hold a small metal device in my hands and twirl my finger on a circular controller, navigating the menus on my iPod classic. I haven’t done this in a long time. I have a full range of iPod models, and this one, bought back in 2008, doesn’t get much use any more. That click-wheel controller was never a great idea–it’s clunky and inefficient–but it’s emblematic of the early iPod line, before tapping on a tactile screen became the norm.

In a way, there’s something nostalgic about listening to music on a device that does little more than play music. (Yes, it can play videos and display photos, but with its tiny display, I’ve never used it for either of those things.) It reminds me of the early days of the iPod, when music listeners marveled at the ability to store so much music on a pocket-sized device, to listen to any of it with a few spins of the click-wheel, to play music in shuffle mode instead of one CD at a time.

The story of the iPod is, in many ways, the story of Apple’s comeback.

Read the rest of the article on the Macworld website.