How Apple got the U2 giveaway wrong

I’ve been watching the kerfluffle about Apple giving away the new U2 album with some amusement. It’s really easy to say “watch all of these people complain about getting free stuff” and try to dismiss it, but in reality, there are some bigger issues where they have a point, and that shouldn’t be ignored.

At the same time, much of what I’m seeing seems to be more about being able to make snide comments about Apple and/or U2 to gain snark points with their peers, because both are easy targets with groups of people who love finding excuses to prove they’re smarter than us because, well, because. So the real issues here get lost in the snark, or dismissed along with it.

That said, this isn’t a big issue. As a friend of mine said, “it’s too bad we can’t get this kind of anger about things like police abuse” — and while he’s right, that, too, is an oversimplification, because in reality we did get a lot (and it made a difference), and it kind of assumes people can only get upset about one thing.

My initial reaction was that the whole thing was a bit forced, and both Bono and Tim Cook looked uncomfortable and like they were reading it off teleprompters without rehearsing it together, which I’m guessing was what happened. It had the feeling of something that came together at the last minute and not well thought through. For me, it also felt really out of place with the rest of the keynote. It would have made more sense to do this for the introduction of the next generation iTunes (hey! where the hell is this, anyway? You’re late!) and not this keynote.

So it struck me as an off note in an otherwise well-handled performance.

I also felt there was a strong opportunity lost here: a lot of the criticism could have been blunted if the fee for buying the album had been donated to RED or some other charitable organization instead of handed over to Bono and the band. As it turns out (and not surprising to me), for all the whining about the free giveaway, at least ten OTHER U2 albums also re-entered the best seller lists, so the “long tail” of supplemental sales this giveaway caused would have given U2 a good chunk of change even if they got zero dollars from this album. “For a good cause” would have unruffled a lot of feathers”, but nobody seemed to think about it. Instead the money went to the band, and that just made it look like a money grab on top of everything else.

Even if Bono announced tomorrow that they were donating the proceeds to RED, it’s too late. Opportunity lost, and it would simply look like they were reacting to the controversy. Which they would be. Too bad neither side thought this through well.

The big issue Apple tripped over here was privacy and trust. We can talk about terms of service and licenses until we’re blue in the face, but most people see their devices as private, and Apple wandered in and stuffed a bundle of bits on their devices, whether or not they asked for it.

If you bought a Windows-based PC anytime in the last 15 years, it came with a lot of software put there “for your convenience”. It was generically known as crapware, and it was because PC vendors were paid to stuff it down your throat, even though you didn’t ask for it. This is a tactic generally reviled by people who had to try to clean all of that stuff out for their less tech savvy family members.

Apple was a company that even marketed itself as above that kind of activity, because they were.

Until now. Because there’s no difference between stuffing a copy of some antivirus app onto a Windows box and stuffing a copy of a (mediocre) U2 album onto my iPhone. Both are there even though I don’t want them and didn’t ask for them. Both are there because they benefit the vendor, not me.

And both of them are there to remind me that I can only consider the device mine and control what goes on it to the degree the vendor lets me — and with Apple, that’s a reminder they shouldn’t want to give their users, given they push their privacy message so hard.

So while I think a lot of the criticism about this was pretty lame and useless (“how terrible. Apple gave you something free. That really sucks!”) there’s an underlying set of problems here that I think Apple should have understood and either dealt with up front or done this giveaway in some other way. Instead, they’ve got people upset with them over something that ought to be rather simple and silly, but really isn’t: because it’s about privacy and control, not about free bits of music.

And we haven’t even gotten into whether U2 was the right group to do this, or whether the album was any good. I’m fascinated how few people across the net even talk about the music or the quality of the album (hint: the few who do aren’t impressed. But did you really think U2 would give us their best work free? Of course not — and Apple’s going to get a big discount off list for orchestrating this stunt).

All in all, neither U2 nor Apple comes out of this looking very good. Which is too bad.

I think Matt Drance on Twitter nailed the problem: Amazing how divided this U2 thing is. If Amazon put a CD on my doorstep, I’d say “Huh, OK.” On my bookshelf? Yes, I would say “wtf.”

Apple reminded all of us they can sneak in and rearrange our bookshelves if they want, and we can’t stop them. that’s a bad message to be sending to their users, and they should know better.