Thursday, January 19, 2006

Apple iTunes and the MiniStore Spying Controversy

UPDATE:Apple has updated the MiniStore functionality to tell the user what is going on and whether they want to use the functionality. Check out the details at Macworld. I wonder how apple has replaced the previous default MiniStore content without sending user data the first time the MiniStore is displayed. If they have pulled this off, iTunes is a flexible application indeeed. The net has been buzzing about the addition of a MiniStore to iTunes 6.0.2 and what kind of data it sends back to Apple and how it's used. Take a look at this Apple Support article for info on the MiniStore. This is how Apple describes the MiniStore on the product information for iTunes:
Looking for some new tunes? Tap into the 2-million-song treasure chest of the iTunes Music Store through the new MiniStore. While you’re browsing your own library or importing a new CD, MiniStore appears at the bottom of the iTunes window and shows you other albums from your favorite artists and artists like them. You can even see reviews of these albums plus what other listeners who like this artist purchased — so you’ll never be at a loss for new music to discover. When you’re ready to go back to full-screen mode, click an icon and MiniStore tucks away, ready to pop up again later when you want to explore some more.
When you download iTunes from Apple, this is how the MiniStore is described:
Discover new music as you enjoy your collection or import new CDs with MiniStore — right from your iTunes library.
This sounds like a potentially cool feature, my wife is always asking me how she can find new music based on something she likes, this fits the bill. How does iTunes provide recommendations? It sends information about the currently selected track to Apple, not whatever is playing as has been erroneously reported in numerous places, I think on purpose to make this look worse than it already is. Apple has responded to Macworld reports on the issue by saying they don't collect anything that is personally identifiable, but the CNET article linked to in the post title states iTunes is sending your iTunes account ID number. In the CNET article Apple says it
"does not save or store any information used to create recommendations for the MiniStore."
Isn't a feature like the MiniStore potentially very desirable? Uh yes, especially if you don't like it you can turn it off with 1 click as the Apple support article linked above states. So where did Apple go wrong? They went wrong in 1 way. They didn't tell people what the MiniStore was going to do, and how it worked, from within iTunes. On OS X, iTunes 6.0.2 was described as a minor release in Software Update. In fact no new features were identified, even though there are three: MiniStore, Sync home movies to iPod (automatically convert to iPod format!), and AirTunes Enchancements (stream to 3 home steroes or powered speakers simultaneously, in sync! That's a huge feature request). Apple should have gone with an opt-in dialog box for just this feature, just like it has you Agree to the new license agreement with every iTunes update. I can even see how they could have done this in a way where people would have embraced the MiniStore , just read the marketing text quoted above, sounds like a cool thing to have. What should Apple do now? Release iTunes 6.0.3 quickly with the opt-in dialog I mention. If this isn't addressed more definitively than press release statements, this PR disaster will get much worse, and I think Apple is going to lose some iPod sales if they don't implement my suggested fix. In no way does Apple want to be lumped into the "they are no better than Microsoft camp".