When Apple met U2 and showed too much of the sausage making

Having been sold the image of Cupertino as the privacy good guy, and a music collection as a personalised reflection of one's tastes, Apple has overplayed its hand by pushing an album onto its users.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

At some point in the recent past at Apple headquarters, a room of middle-aged business heads decided that the band that best reflected Apple, or would be most welcomed by iTunes users, was a certain effects-driven Irish band called U2, which was once described by Henry Rollins as having the worst rhythm section in big rock.

Musical tastes and snobbery aside, the backlash against Apple's decision to offer U2's latest album for free has not been a case of looking a gift horse in the mouth, nor scathing criticism that users received the wrong free thing, but rather disagreement at the mechanism by which Apple chose to deliver the music.

There is a way to offer users of an ecosystem a free piece of content; it is one that has been seen quite often, and allows the user to decide whether they would like to receive it — it's a dialog on the storefront that has a simple yes or no response.

Image: Screenshot by Chris Duckett/ZDNet

The example to the right is how Google, that so-called anathema of privacy and trapper-keeper of the online world if its detractors are to be believed, presents free movies to its users.

I've never personally cared for the adventures of Shaun the Sheep, but it's a quick button press to prevent him from my life. Whereas, Apple decided to forgo its own past behaviour with free songs at Christmas, and chose to not only offer U2 to iTunes customers, but to make it a fully fledged purchase that was unable to be removed from a customer's history.

In a recent conversation with CNET's Michelle Starr, who wanted the purchase purged from her history, Apple responded that "wiping away a purchase from history is not exactly a function".

That was on Friday, and by Tuesday morning, Cupertino had relented to user pressure and produced a "function" to remove the offending album off iTunes libraries and history.

How did Apple end up with so much egg on its face from a PR stunt that the otherwise silent company of Silicon Valley had to relent in the face of customer anger?

Much like the misattributed quote to Otto von Bismarck says, regarding it being best to not see laws and sausages being made, it is also often best not to see the control that a cloud service provider can exert over a service.

"U2 4 U gave users an uncanny glimpse of the power that lies behind cloud technology," James Grimmelmann, professor of law at the University of Maryland, tweeted.

"When Apple drops U2 on your iPhone, it shatters the illusion that your iPhone just works on its own, which is deeply unsettling," he said.

Add in some groupthink that Apple is rare pillar of privacy protection and purity amongst a sewer of vendors such as Google, which is scanning every morsel of information that it can get its hands on to serve ads, and some state-sponsored surveillance fears — and it's a tarnishing and mark against Apple that it could do without to maintain the perceived distance between itself and its competitors.

It's probably a good thing that Tim Cook has reinforced over the past couple of days that Apple is a company that sells hardware, not one that pushes software, as recent track record in the non-physical realm is taking a bit of a beating.

When it comes to cloud computing and modern internet services, it is worth remembering that when someone says "cloud", it should be replaced with "someone else's computer" if you want to know who really has true control.

An unrequested U2 album is merely the latest in what has become a series of missteps for Apple after its recent iCloud celebrity picture and Apple ID attacks. It's almost as though Apple is not the stunning specimen of infallibility that many have come to believe it is.

A little too much of the curtain has been pulled back and a little too much of the sausage has been seen in recent times. Apple would do well to return to its otherwise benevolent state of affairs before it is perceived as falling back to the pack. We already have enough to deal with without trying to reconcile its appalling musical tastes.

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