Apple’s malware strategy for MobileMe

Matthew JC. Powell
23 July, 2008
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The transition from .Mac to MobileMe could have gone a little smoother. OK, a lot smoother. Let’s face it, it was a debacle. When a company like Apple — notoriously reluctant to admit anything is wrong — is forced into two apologies in a week, something is definitely up. What’s more, the time may well be ripe for a third.

Windows XP and Vista users who bought iPhones and duly updated or downloaded iTunes 7.7 found an extra little surprise on their machines: a control panel for MobileMe preferences. Just like the preference pane in Mac OS X it allows users to log in to MobileMe, set up their iDisk and set what content they want to share between their devices and the “cloud”.

Very convenient, if you happen to be a MobileMe subscriber.

If you’re not, though, the control panel does nothing for you except take you to a web page advertising MobileMe. There’s a really catchy word for unsolicited commercial communications. Let me just try and think for a moment what it is …

Oh yeah. Spam.

Apple was criticised a few months ago when Windows users checking the Apple Software Update control panel found that Safari 3.1 was ticked and ready for them to download, even if they didn’t already have Safari installed in their systems. The absurd thing was that most of the criticism came from the CEO of Mozilla, whose Firefox browser updates itself without any user intervention — just the kind of thing malware does.

Users could at least decide to untick Safari 3.1 and not install it if they didn’t want it. Even so, Apple changed the default behaviour of the control panel so that Safari was unticked. Everyone thought it had learned its lesson.

But, no.

By installing what amounts to advertising by stealth when people download iTunes 7.7 Apple has violated an important trust between users and corporations. In the case of Windows users that Apple wants to woo over to the Mac with brilliant industrial design, superior usability and an increased sense of security, this is a particularly egregious oversight.

OK, there are exceptions to the laws about Spam. The fact that by purchasing an iPhone and installing iTunes 7.7 the users have established an existing commercial relationship with the company means it’s technically not an offense. But while iTunes 7.7 is essential to using an iPhone, MobileMe isn’t. Over the past couple of weeks some might even have argued it was an impediment.

Sneaking ads onto Windows users’ systems may not technically be Spam, but it’s some other generic brand of tinned spiced ham. It looks and smells like Spam to me.

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