Journal: News & Comment

Tuesday, October 04, 2005
# 1:58:00 PM:

Premium subscriptions and Joy Ito's iTunes lament (sorry, that should be Joi Ito)

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Todd Cochrane of the excellent Geek News Central podcast asked a couple of questions on his latest edition today:

  1. What premium online services do you subscribe to and why?
  2. Is there any workaround if you lose purchased songs from the iTunes Music Store if you haven't backed them up, i.e., can you re-download them?

My responses:

Premium content

I've never been inclined to pay for material from the New York Times, the National Post or Vancouver Sun here in Canada, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, or any of those other print publications (though the Economist is tempting, and at least if you subscribe to the magazine you get full access to the online material at no additional cost).

What I do subscribe to is Salon Premium. There are several reasons:

  1. Salon remains an independent online-only publication, supporting themselves through advertising, sponsorships, and reader subscriptions. I like their work and find it worth supporting.
  2. They publish lots of stuff, and make tons of it available to subscribers every day. That includes not only excellent articles, but many bonuses (free trial subscriptions to print magazines, free _un-DRMed_ MP3 downloads, even from major artists (I got a free Maroon 5 song, just as one instance, as an MP3 a couple of years before they hit it big).
  3. They support RSS widely, so I can subscribe to new articles, new music articles, and so on, separately.
  4. Being a Premium subscriber lets me kill all the ads on the site.
  5. I can link from my website or send links to friends, and they can still read the material if they're willing to watch a Flash "daypass" ad. Not a bad compromise.
  6. All the old material from Salon, right back to its founding in the 1990s, is still available -- and anything that has ever been free still is. That goes right back to 1996.

Joi Ito's iTunes hell

While I'm a Mac fanatic, like the iTunes store and have bought my share of stuff from it, and love iTunes and my iPod, I still cannot believe that Apple gives you no option to re-download music you've already bought. That is, I think, the iTunes Store's biggest failing, and a competitive disadvantage compared to other purchase services.

I back up my purchased music (as well as burning it to audio CD and re-ripping it to un-DRMed MP3 form, and backing that up too), but saying to customers, "sorry, you lost it and it's gone" is just bad business.

Now, I supposed you could make the analogy that in the old days, if you lost or broke an LP, cassette, or 8-track tape, you'd just have to buy another one if you hadn't made a tape copy, but that's no longer a reasonable excuse. Besides, I don't think there's any technical reason Apple couldn't do that, since re-downloading a song shouldn't be fundamentally different from restoring a DRMed backup you had made yourself.

Yes, now Apple's Backup 3 lets you automatically schedule backups of purchased music if you're a .Mac subscriber. But even with 1 GB of storage on your iDisk now, if you buy a lot of music and have a lot of other files, that might not be enough. Re-downloading is a dead simple idea, is fully legal, and (here's the rub) is supported by other music purchasing services. Apple shouldn't let them have a customer-service advantage over the iTunes store, but right now they do. It's a shame.

It does look like Joi Ito's wife is SOL on her purchased music if there's no backup, but maybe an email to Apple Customer Support might yield a way to download the files again. But Apple's wording is pretty clear:

...if your hard disk becomes damaged or you lose any of the music you've purchased, you'll have to buy any purchased music again to rebuild your library.

NOTE: Just so you know, iTunes Music Store files are easy to back up—they behave like any other file. You can copy them to DVD-R or CD-R, to a flash drive, to another computer, to a web server. You can zip compress them. You can do what you like, and when you bring them back to an authorized computer with iTunes (you can authorize up to five for a single iTunes store account), they will play. The encryption and DRM are keyed to your iTunes store account, and thus to the computers you currently have authorized through Apple's servers.

The copy prevention isn't really that, in fact: you can copy all you like, as Apple says: "Songs purchased on the iTunes Music Store can be copied to an unlimited number of computers. However, only five computers at a time can play [my emphasis - D.] your purchased music." You can authorize and de-authorize computers at will, up to your five-machine limit. So as long as you remember to de-authorize computers before you sell or get rid of them, you're fine. The lesson is: back up, back up, back up.


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