Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Music: Are you ready for that? Driving your car down a desert highway listening to the seventies and eighties rise like zombies from the rippling sand? I hope so.

What could make me buy an iPhone?

Jerry Stratton, June 27, 2007

iPhone

Courtesy of Apple

Apple is trying very hard to convince me to buy an iPhone. I’ve always made fun of how poorly designed my phone interface is, but after watching Apple’s Using the iPhone demo video, it isn’t funny any more.

That video still wasn’t enough to get me to change from a service I’ve generally found reliable (Sprint) to a company I’ve almost always had trouble when dealing with (AT&T). But then their second video shows me how to sign up for a phone account without ever having to deal with AT&T—or any service rep at all. That’s how purchasing a cell phone plan should work.

The iPhone’s interface makes every other cell phone I’ve seen look laughable. I currently have two cell phones. For personal use, I have a Sanyo RL4920 with Sprint PCS. For work, I have a Samsung something-or-other from Verizon.

The Verizon phone is mostly unusable. I keep the manual at the office, and need to read it on the road. Someone keeps calling me on the phone, and they appear to be leaving a voicemail. But the onscreen prompts result in my leaving myself a voice mail message, not listening to them. Then there’s the warning on the back that says, “Do NOT touch this area when using your phone.”

The Sanyo is mostly navigable, if annoying. It has at least three different means of navigating menus quickly: some menus can be navigated by hitting the number of that menu item; others can be navigated by typing the first letter of the entry I want; and the rest can only be navigated through the up and down arrows.

My previous personal cell phone was a Motorola StarTAC. Its interface was mostly fine because it only did one thing, make calls. One of the reasons I kept it for as long as I did was because I didn’t want any extra features to confuse the interface. Phone interfaces suck, and they suck more the more features the phone has.

The iPhone’s interface is one of those “features” that really separates the tech geek from the average consumer. Follow the forums, and a lot of people don’t understand why features such as being able to choose voice mails out of order are worth paying for. It’s mirroring the infamous Slashdot reaction to the iPod, that there were already music players on the market that had gigabytes of hard disk space, what made the iPod so special? The answer was that the iPod saved time: those other music players took hours to transfer music; the iPod, using FireWire, took no more than a few minutes.

That’s what separates the tech geek from the consumer: time saved doesn’t count as a feature to the tech geek. Having to spend more time using features is not a drawback, nor is learning arcane menus.

To a larger extent, however, the iPhone introduction reminds me of the iTunes Music Store. When the iTMS became successful, I didn’t understand how important it would be for Apple. The reasons it was successful were obvious and easily copied. It reduced the restrictions on what people could do with the music they purchase, and it was easier to use. I understand that Apple is very good at ease of use, but anyone could have modeled their online store’s digital restrictions on Apple’s. But they didn’t; they kept pushing the highly restrictive models that Apple had made obsolete.

When my StarTAC started failing, I chose the Sanyo because it had a USB port, but I mostly haven’t used it. I slogged through uploading ring tones from my personal computer to the phone, and ran into strange errors where there was space for this but not that, and limitations on my own ring tone files that didn’t appear to apply to ones I might purchase (which I haven’t done). And then I had to go through each contact and apply a ring tone to them, rather than applying one ringtone to “friends” and one to “family”. It was a pain and I haven’t dealt with it since then. I haven’t updated my phone’s contact list in over a year.

With the iPhone, it seems obvious that if it is successful, it will be because it breaks the barrier between the phone company and the cell phone, and because it is easier to use. Will other cell phone makers copy that model? Will Verizon loosen its infamously tight grip on cell phone features? For that matter, will Apple continue what they started with the iPod and the iTunes Music Store, or will they try to extract money from us for things we’ve already paid for?

There’s only one thing that Apple needs to do to get me to purchase an iPhone as my next phone. They need to make it easy to use any iTunes track as a ringtone. This would go a long ways towards alleviating concerns that they’re pulling a Verizon and artificially restricting what we can do on our phones—the most common example being requiring us to purchase any ringtone we want to use. They aren’t doing that today: as I write this they don’t allow any ringtones except the ones that come with the phone. But if they ever do introduce a ringtone purchase method, they had better, first or at the same time, introduce a way to use free ringtones just as easily.

Edward C. Baig claims that the inability to use iPod tracks as ringtones may be a “rights issue”, but that makes no sense. If I have the right to play a song using the iPhone, then I can play a 15-second or so portion of that same song using the iPhone. In any other industry I wouldn’t even be worried. But this is the intersection of the cell phone industry and the music industry. Anything that screws consumers is possible—and has probably already been pulled by at least one company.

So, I need to see this feature before I buy an iPhone. If Apple is going to artificially restrict the iPhone’s capabilities, then I don’t want one. If they plan to make me pay to listen to a song I already own, then I’m definitely not buying their phone.

“When you own the music it never goes away. When you own the music you have a broad set of personal use rights. You can listen to it however you want.”—Steve Jobs introducing the iTunes Music Store

September 19, 2007: Stephen Fry on iPhone killers

Stephen Fry says it better, of course:

What, Apple’s a bigger company than Sony? Got more muscle? What muscle it has got, it got from daring to be better.

It’s a long screed about the good and the bad in the iPhone Killer industry. The very fact that these are “iPhone Killers” a few months after the iPhone’s release should tell us something.

Hat tip to Daring Fireball.

September 13, 2007: The Ringtone Racket

John Gruber adds his voice to the ringtone debate:

The whole ringtones racket is predicated on the notion that ringtones are something different than songs. This notion is bullshit. You don’t turn songs into ringtones; you treat them as ringtones. They’re not even a different file format. It’s just a different context for playing the same song on the same device.

The distinction between ringtones and songs is an artificial marketing construct. It is a misconception, albeit a widely held one, that there is any foundation in copyright law for this, i.e. that an honest consumer is obligated to pay for ringtones separately from “regular” songs for some legal reason. Not so.… If you have the right to play a song, you have the right to use it as a ringtone on your phone.

From the inception of the iTunes Store, Apple has done right by its customers. The iTunes Store was conceived and designed as something customers would enjoy. It competes fairly, both against traditional music sales on physical media such as CDs, and against illegal bootlegging. It can’t beat bootlegging on price, but it can beat it in terms of convenience and user experience.

iTunes’s new ringtone feature, though, is the first time Apple has created a feature that is only usable with iTunes Store tracks. Burning to disc, transferring to peripheral devices such as iPods and Apple TV, playing over the air to Airport Express—in all these cases, the features work with all songs in your library, wherever they came from.

For any song you already own on CD, Apple is asking you to pay three times for it in order to use it as a ringtone on your iPhone: once for the CD you’ve already purchased, again to buy a needless duplicate of the track from the iTunes Store, and a third time to generate the ringtone.

More at The Ringtones Racket.

September 7, 2007: Apple’s new Music Store ringtone policy

The Apple giveth, and the Apple taketh away. Yesterday, Apple saved me $400 by artifically restricting what iTunes and the iPhone can do, just for the sake of nickel-and-diming music lovers the same way the rest of the industry tries to. Today, they cost me… $12.501. How? I have a pile of five music CDs on my desk right now. They’re on my desk because I don’t have room for them in my CD racks. I haven’t purchased another CD rack because I’ve been thinking I’m not going to be buying many CDs any more, and it’s silly to buy a rack just for five CDs. I’ve been trying out the new iTunes Plus and it works pretty well, so why fill my apartment with CD racks?

Well, one reason is that there are no crazy artificial restrictions on what I can do with my CDs. Digital music purchases always have restrictions that CDs don’t have. In the past, the iTunes Music Store restrictions have been fairly benign: they haven’t limited what you can do with the music you buy, but how many times you can do it. The only egregious limitation was the inability to resell music you’re done with and don’t want to listen to anymore. While I think they’re wrong, I can also see their point about resale of a no-physical-media purchase.

Recently, however, they’ve added a purely arbitrary usage restriction. The latest iTunes blocks iToner from adding ringtones to the iPhone. And the iTunes Music Store specifically forbids triggering music to play on incoming phone calls. That is, they specifically forbid using iTMS-purchased songs as ringtones.

You may not use Products as a musical “ringer” in connection with phone calls.

September 5, 2007: Rip, Mix, Pay

Apple has saved me the cost of an iPhone. I’ll be renewing my Sprint contract for a year when it expires next month. Just five days ago Apple played the pro-consumer card when they dropped NBC’s television shows from the iTunes store; NBC proved Apple’s point by promptly signing up for Amazon’s far more restrictive Unbox service. Now, less than a week later, they’ve lost that cred. They are asking consumers to pay again for music they’ve already purchased. They’ve announced that even if you already own the song, you’ll need to pay again to use it as a ringtone.

When I wrote about ringtones in June, they were a proxy for the real question, will Apple continue to make their devices for consumers, or will they succumb to the same greed that has seduced the music industry and the rest of the cellphone industry?

We got an inkling of the answer last week when Ambrosia—a great software company—introduced iToner. That software’s only purpose is putting ringtones on the iPhone, “the official way”. That would be a pretty short product life if Apple were about to announce consumer-friendly ringtones directly in iTunes. Ambrosia president John Welch claimed not to have any inside knowledge:

We’re betting that they will charge for [ringtones], because of their contracts with AT&T (they likely have a revenue sharing model for ringtone sales). However if we’re wrong, and they make a great general-purpose ringtone program that works with any audio files (purchased or not), then we wasted our time.

Looks like they bet right.

At the last Apple press event, a journalist took heat for admittedly a pretty lame question. This time around, there was no question and answer session. I would have liked to see the question “When you introduced the iTunes Music Store, you said When you own the music it never goes away. You can listen to it however you want. What changed your mind?”

Where does it stop? If you have to pay extra to hear your music when someone calls you, will you also eventually have to pay extra to listen to it in your car? To play your videos on your TV set? To use a music track over your wedding video? As an alarm when iTunes wakes you up in the morning?

Apple usually does a good job of dreaming the dreams of consumers. This is what turned the iTunes Music Store into the powerhouse it currently is: while everyone else was trying to nickel-and-dime consumers with rental schemes, Apple came out and sold them music. But the cell phone industry and the music industry dream of nickels and dimes, of per-use and even per-listen charges. After the iPhone came out with no means of easily adding custom iPhone ringtones, I wrote,

This is the intersection of the cell phone industry and the music industry. Anything that screws consumers is possible.

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