While my wallet gently weeps

David Braue
10 September, 2009
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Despite my better musical sense, I’ve recently found myself humming the hugely popular Black Eyed Peas song ‘I Gotta Feeling‘. Considering the results of Apple’s announcement this week, however, led me into some disappointing maths.

You see, I can either buy the song – which weighs in at just under 5 minutes – for $2.19, or, thanks to the magic of iTunes 9, I can buy the ringtone of the song – which weighs in at what I’m assuming is a fair bit less – for $2.09. Or, in typical additive Apple maths, I can buy both for… $4.28.

Call me a cynic, but I’m increasingly convinced that the ‘magic’ of iTunes is becoming less and less about what amazing things it does, but how effective it is helping Apple suck cash out of our wallets. Apple’s decision to charge the entire cost of a song again just to have it as a ring tone seems to have crossed a line somewhere – especially since there are other perfectly acceptable ways to make ringtones.

At least when you buy an application from the App Store you get something of arguable value. Charging so much for ringtones, which it is perfectly possible to make your own, is the downloadable content’s equivalent of 1900 numbers – high cost for little return, and horribly devoid of reward in the end. Ringtones are the biggest Apple rort since Genius was introduced a year ago with iTunes 8.

The potential sale of lyrics – which are fully supported in iTunes but seemingly cannot be added to purchased music via any means other than ponderous song-by-song cut-and-paste – is the next likely step. This trend is also a reminder of a sobering fact: Apple’s shift from MP3 to AAC was sold as improving sound quality, but what it has really done is to prevent us from using music in any way except that which has been explicitly approved by Apple to make it more money.

I may sound like a curmudgeon here; I fully appreciate that millions of people out there are more than happy to buy ringtones by the bucketload, and I’m sure Apple will make a motza out of this feature. Of course, millions of people have proven happy to sign up for 1900 services that become ridiculously expensive, but that doesn’t make them any less scandalous.

What the new iTunes release signals to me is yet another step in the erosion of consumer freedoms: why, for example, is it fine to rip a CD into iTunes but not fine to rip a ringtone from a CD into iTunes? The answer, of course, is that Apple has now figured out a way to make money from those ringtones.

Apple has still not, however, figured out how to make money from the Beatles, having missed that once-in-a-lifetime 9-9-09 launch opportunity for what I can only assume is continuing legal wrangling with Sir Paul and Reclusive Ringo. I was among those figuring a Beatles launch at the Apple event was a dead certainty, but it has become clear that even apparent widespread public demand isn’t enough to make something happen unless the powers-that-be want it to.

Really, folks, it’s not that complicated. I love the Beatles too, but it is, in the end, just music.

The continuing lack of Beatles content has convinced me that the issue is not even one of resistance to iTunes, but likely an attempt by the Beatles’ rights holders to preserve the Beatles’ album-based music format.

Collections of songs like ‘The White Album’ don’t exactly lend themselves to being cherry-picked for hits, so it’s understandable that some people may prefer the Beatles’ music be sold as contiguous discs rather than the hits-based song-by-song approach (Pink Floyd, off the top of my head, is another artist whose music lends itself to a start-to-finish listen rather than selectively choosing songs).

Artistic integrity, then. Is that the reason for this surprising setback? Not exactly. I think it fundamentally comes down to somebody trying to maximise the value of the Beatles catalogue. Remember that the Beatles stand to make a bunch of dough from the new remastered box sets – so why risk cannibalising that by offering the songs through the iTunes Store?

Boosting the low end. Apple originally added features to iTunes to make us want to buy music from the iTunes Store (newly improved for your shopping pleasure) and enjoy everything its little ecosystem has to offer. These days, new iTunes features seem solely designed to suck more and more money out of us because there is no viable alternative.

Consider other new features like iTunes LP, which may be an attempt to address concerns about song cherry-picking, and its companion iTunes Extra, which lets Apple sell additional content that’s bundled together like a DVD or Blu-ray disc. I’m not saying it’s a bad solution to one of the problems with digital distribution – but it’s a classic upsell proposition, and we as a society have fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.

Ditto the pimped-out iPod nano, which now features a camera and FM radio headlining its new features. The camera surprised nobody, although its omission from the iPod touch was a surprise. Well, not really: here, again, Apple is feature-limiting its products to preserve sales. Some bloggers have blamed reported technical issues, but that’s balderdash.

There’s a simple reason Apple didn’t add a camera to the iPod touch: it doesn’t have to. People are buying iPod touches like hotcakes so Apple has no reason to give them more value for money until it has to. For now, people buying in that higher-end market that want a camera (and a GPS, another often-mooted but still-undelivered feature) can buy an iPhone instead.

This launch was all about resurrecting the flagging sales of lower-end iPods by packing them with new features. There’s a microphone, VoiceOver, and speaker. Heck, the new nano even has a pedometer. As even Jobs indicated during the presentation, the new nano is aimed at the growing casual video-recording market currently dominated by the likes of the now Cisco Systems-owned Flip Video camcorders.

Entry-level Flips cost $US149.99 and the new nano is, surprise surprise, $US149; Flip would seem to be shaking in its boots today. However, I reserve judgment on feature parity until we see some quality comparisons; my own tests suggest the Flip still trumps the iPhone’s video quality in many settings. But who cares about quality these days?

Perhaps the most interesting feature in the nano is the inclusion of the FM radio, in a most un-Apple-like concession to the fact that competitors have offered radios for years.

I’ve argued on many occasions that Apple has absolutely no interest in enabling people to get content for free when they can buy it from the iTunes Store. Apple’s FM radio implementation reveals two things: first, that even Apple has finally had to concede there’s no good reason for iPods not to have FM radios like their competitors. And second, that I was right: Apple was only ever going to add FM when it figured out how to make money from it. Built-in song tagging, which is like Shazam on the iPhone, provides that opportunity.

There were, of course, other things announced at the big event, which is perhaps most notable because it featured the return of Steve Jobs. iTunes’ application organisation now works like it should. The iPod touch comes with up to 64GB of storage and runs faster than the model I own, grumble grumble. The iPod shuffle and classic got a little TLC. iPhone 3.1, well, I’m sure it has a few new tricks but 3.0 was such a leap forward that 3.1 is more of a parenthetical upgrade. We will all, of course, get it.

Those who will read between the lines (and those who are still reading this far down my blog) may see iTunes 9 as the foundation for a new era of content delivery. For example, iTunes Extras will allow Apple to sell us Blu-ray equivalent content to watch on the inevitable soon-to-be-updated-should-be-before-Christmas Apple TV. Now that Apple has dipped into the ring tones rort, there’s really no excuse for the next enhancement to iTunes to be support for e-books – and a tablet computer to read them on.

The bottom line. All this leads to the most obvious question: what in the world did rock ‘n’ roll have to do with this event? OK, there was a bit of classic rock at the beginning of the event. But the Beatles were nowhere to be seen, and the only actual music guest – Norah Jones – hardly qualifies.

In the end, perhaps it was the blogosphere-supported weight of expectation that made this launch seem so ‘meh’. I assumed Jobs would only come back to announce something of great import – the long-awaited tablet, for example – but instead he presided over what amounts to a whole lot of point upgrades designed to finely hone Apple’s ability to part us from our hard-earned.

Sure, Apple is a company, and making money sort of comes with the territory – but it used to make us feel good about it. Sure, the products are still good, but these days I – and, judging by early responses in the blogosphere, many others are of a similar mind – gotta feeling we’re all being taken just a little bit for granted.

What did you think of the launch? Am I being too harsh on Apple? Expecting too much? Or just bitter because the tablet remains a fanciful dream and my iPod touch is now obsolete?

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