I blogged a little while back about all the things wrong with the BBC’s digital store. Now that store is closed. Coincidence…? 😉
Today, it’s the iTunes Store’s turn. Apple, do pay attention, eh!!
(This will be a very long post, sorry! I did try to keep it short. There’s a tldr; section at the end.)
iTunes (via their integrated store) allows people to stream (and often download) their favourite music, films & telly. You know this already. For the purpose of this blog I’m going to be focusing on the films & telly. But, okay, a quick thing wrong with the music:
Music or, am I buying mp3s here or what?
I like CDs. Small, durable, widely supported, you can gift them to friends when you don’t want them anymore, or sell them on. I notice the quality over mp3s. So digital music must be cheap for me to consider it, or unavailable on CD. Cheap and portable. If I’m cherrypicking a catchy song, it’s also useful.
Now, if I go to Amazon, I can buy an mp3 of a song. It says “mp3” on the tin. I know what an mp3 is. Comfortable with the concept. iTunes Store? I’ve no idea what the container is these days, what quality it is, whether I can put it on any non-Apple hardware, whether I can listen to it without the Internet, take it on holiday with me, or burn it onto a CD. The closest I get is “Mastered for iTunes”. Well, uh-huh, that’s about as informative as a DVD being labelled “digitally mastered”. That sticker isn’t even a link, won’t tell me if that’s not just lazy BS marketing or something really cool. I have to assume it’s the former.
So, I’ve never bought music from iTunes Store. Am I alone? Probably not. Might be worth you sticking a permanent “Buying Music FAQ” link on the store, eh, Apple? Better than anyone else telling me to “Just use Google”. Sure, I can Google the answers above but why should every new customer have to do that? Amazon says “mp3” and it’s the same price so they get my gold.
Blu-Ray vs Digital
People want to tell us that physical media is dead. Well, Blu-Ray has way more storage space than the equivalent digital file from Apple. Last time I checked Blu-Ray has 25GB – or 50GB if it’s dual-layered. A film I own on iTunes, Doc Hollywood (which I can’t source on blu), is a little over 4GB. Tell me the sound and video wouldn’t be better if given five to ten times that storage and I’ll spit in your eye!
But does Joe Average care about the difference? Is Joe an audiophile who wants uncompressed sound? Probably not. I’m not going to argue the case. What I will argue is that the digital file is to the blu what mp3 is to a well-mastered CD. Inferior. So:
What’s up with the Pricing, iTunes?
I mean, seriously? How much?! Let’s take an example. Cars (the Doc Hollywood remake). Just a random choice. As I check the prices today, it’s £13.99 on iTunes. The blu on Amazon is £7.69. The 3D blu-ray is £9.38.
CheapCharts to iTunes’ Rescue
There’s a free app called CheapCharts which notifies you whenever there’s a good deal on iTunes, and gives you a price history too so you know you’re not paying over the odds. Looking up Cars, it was £4.99 for four days in July 2017. Then again, camelcamelcamel tells me that the blu was £4.53 on Amazon in December. And that £4.53 covers the cost of the postage, case & printed art, disc and the “Disney Rewards” voucher inside. The iTunes cost covers, um, Apple’s server space and commission?
Really, the digital version has no business being more expensive than the blu, not at regular price, and certainly not on sale. Can you sell the digital version on? Nope. Can you gift it to a friend? Nope. And let’s not forget I can also buy discs even more cheaply second-hand.
iTunes doesn’t do 3D
That’s okay, because 3D is just a nerdy niche fad, right, that’s had its day…? Right? Well, not in my household it’s not. iTunes can’t come up with software to play a 3D version of anything? If I can make a 3D movie using free software and make a stereoscopic mp4 that I can play on my old 3D TV, Apple should be able to come up with a solution too. Just sayin’.
iTunes doesn’t do Steelbooks
Well, okay, I’m having a giraffe with this one. But they could take a leaf out of the physical media industry’s book and come up with options: plain movie, movie + extras, movie + extras + soundtrack bundles and so on.
iTunes only “sort of” does Extras
Sometimes iTunes does extras for films. Can you download them? Nope. You need an Internet connection, always. And, so they say, the latest version of whatever operating system you’re on, as well as the latest version of iTunes. Are they the equivalent of the physical disc extras? From what I’ve seen, the answer is: mostly No. Commentary tracks are usually the first casualties. I like commentary tracks.
What about TV? Here, extras can be downloaded. However, they generally fare much worse than their physical disc counterparts. For example, Justified, the complete series is today £29.59 on blu from Amazon. It has “over 12 hours of special features”. On iTunes… wait for it… it costs £69.99 with, um, no extras that I could determine.
On sale, Justified fares better. The blu has been as low as £25.91 on Amazon (or £17.40 “used”). On iTunes, £19.99. Without those extras, of course, and only so far for eight days. Normally its “sale” price is £49.99. That’s just taking the Mick, surely?
Some shows are 5.1 on blu and stereo on iTunes. Well, I guess that’s fine if you’re only watching on your iPhone…
Where are they? There seems to be much less of them available to us digitally than on the equivalent disc. Closed captions aren’t the same. Additionally, some of us use foreign language subtitles to learn that language! I get why there aren’t foreign audio track options available, because bandwidth becomes an issue. But subtitles don’t (or shouldn’t) take up very much space at all.
4K is not for 5K iMacs? What?
Apple pulled off quite a blinder recently by announcing free 4K upgrades to people’s HD purchases. At least, for films. You can’t complain about a 4K version of Star Trek II for a penny under a fiver, can you..?
Well, you can, yes, if you own an iMac with a 5K screen. Because, apparently, a 5K iMac is so feeble that it can’t even stream 4K content! Unless that 4K content is from YouTube. 😉 Can Apple not secure the stream properly on their own proprietary hardware+software…?
You need a latest-generation Apple TV to play iTunes’ 4K content on a big screen because… well, just because. But that’s not the worst of it:
4K is streaming only
In my 15+ years accessing the World Wide Web, I’ve never been fortunate to have had a reliable Internet connection. Most days it has been okay, but there have been many annoying times that it’s gone on the blink. Especially on, say, a Friday evening when the rest of the world is using it too. So, the fact there’s no download option for 4K is going to be an issue. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but sometime it will be. Apple, I’m not looking to store every purchased 4K film on my computer, that would hardly be practical. But to have no option to store one or two of them in readiness for the weekend, in the event of an Internet meltdown? That’s a win for 4K Blu.
DRM. Did I mention DRM?
I didn’t. I’d been holding back. DRM is there so I can’t give away my download, or sell it on second-hand, like I can with a physical disc. Or it’s there because Apple and/or content providers think that otherwise we’ll upload our files to all our mates, thus destroying the Film Industry and/or the very fabric of Space/Time. Just like when mp3 files destroyed the Music Industry. Oh. Wait.
So, DRM is there to be helpful to nobody, except the paranoid copyright owners. I don’t want to tar all copyright owners with that brush; on the other hand, there is no option for TV/film to be free of Apple’s DRM, so whose fault is that…?
DRM means you can’t view your iTunes files via your wi-fi-enabled blu-ray player. You need an Apple TV to watch stuff on your TV. You also can’t stream your legally-purchased favourite TV show on your Android phone.
Now, if you have nothing but Apple products, this is not such a big issue.
(For everyone else, I hear there are ways around the DRM. Don’t ask me how; I don’t want to encourage you. I guess if you’re so anti-DRM that the only way you’d ever use iTunes is if you had a workaround, and you have no intention of gifting free copies to your mates, then such software might even be considered a “good” thing because it means more sales to content providers and nothing lost from digital piracy.)
But Apple’s DRM is pretty harmless, right? If you play by the rules? Um, no, unfortunately it isn’t. Let me tell you something that recently happened to me. It started when I came to realize that…
iTunes’ Preordering Sometimes Fails With Horrible Consequences
Eh? What? Well, it’s true. I’d read before, in customers’ reviews for TV series that they had spent their money on “just the trailer.” Stupid people being stupid, I had thought. And then it happened to me.
Early on Xmas Day, I was feeling unusually generous to myself, so on a whim I preordered the Christmas Special of Doctor Who for £3.99. Which is cheaper than the to-be-released-in-late-January blu, @ £12.99. Additionally, CheapCharts informed me that last year’s Xmas special had never been reduced from £3.99. If ever I was going to buy something on Day 1, and not wait for a sale, it would be now. All I could access at the time was the trailer. The rest would follow after the actual episode had aired on telly. Or so it should have been.
Boxing Day, and still all I could access was the trailer. The actual episode and the other two extras now appeared on the Store Page but were marked “Series Only”. The status of the package was “Purchased” but only the trailer was marked “Play”. And it wasn’t just me: from the comments, others had been affected too. And some of those had been affected with the exact same problem for last year’s Xmas special too! Isn’t this just way too long for iTunes not to have fixed a problem? So I emailed iTunes support (using a link right at the bottom of the page in small text).
When iTunes Customer Support Gets It Horribly Wrong
It was Boxing Day. So I was pleased to get a reply within a few hours. Good show! Unfortunately the reply did not seem to understand my problem as I had detailed it to them and I was told I should just log out and log back in again. Had I emailed Microsoft by mistake? Of course, logging back in did not work at all (nor did rebooting), so I emailed them back, as politely as I could muster, and sent them a screenshot of my “Pending” order for a “Trailer”. Let me reiterate that I did not accidentally buy a trailer: that trailer was never available to buy separately, it was marked “Series Only” when I preordered the package and surely nobody in their right mind would ever buy a two-minute preview by itself anyway, no matter how good it was. Certainly not for four quid.
So… Boxing Day came and went. Me in a bad mood. (I do have other things to be irritated about on Boxing Day, but this was certainly one of the heavier straws) . So much for being able to watch the Xmas special at Xmas time. 😦
Wednesday came and went. Not a dicky bird in reply.
Thursday morning. I finally got an email back. Here’s your £4.99 refund it said. You can now go and buy it again – but best to wait three weeks first, because “in most cases this issue is fixed in that timeframe”! I kid you not.
“£4.99?” I thought. “That’s mighty generous of them, giving me a quid back for my trouble! Better than a slap in the face with a wet kipper, at any rate!” But no. The kipper would have been better because:
They had cancelled and refunded me my previous iTunes order.
When DRM + iTunes Customer Support Both Go Horribly Wrong
My previous order (from a full week prior) was a series on sale for £4.99, which had since reverted to the much higher price of £19.99. What iTunes Customer Support had now done was refund me my £4.99 and, using their DRM mojo, deleted the series from my account. It would cost me £15 more to buy back what I had already started watching!
It’s like buying a deeply-discounted blu-ray boxed set for a fiver at a shop one week, then the next week buying a DVD without an actual disc inside, complaining about that, and then the shop’s agents sneaking into my house in the dead of night, nicking my first boxed set instead and refunding me my fiver, afterwards telling me they could sell it back to me for twenty.
“Hey, I never asked you to cancel my previous order!” I told them. I had been very specific as to when I’d made the order for the Xmas Special. I had even sent them a screenshot with the Doctor Who cover on it in an earlier email, two days before. This screenshot. Trailer, Doctor Who, £3.99, it says.
What was I told? Sorry, once we’ve cancelled an order we can’t undo that.
Let me state that again: iTunes Customer Support apparently cannot credit a digital file to a customer’s account manually when they screw up and delete it from your account. Does that make any sort of sense to anyone?
But they did offer me “5 credits” as a goodwill gesture. With these 5 credits I can now buy back five out of the ninety+ episodes taken from me, not including the extras of course. Worst goodwill gesture ever. 😦
But back to the Preordered “Trailer” Bug
As stated and acknowledged, other people were affected by the “Trailer” bug. Here’s some meta code for you, Apple, totally free:
for each customer who has “Xmas Special Trailer” in their account,
if customer does not have “Xmas Special” then credit customer with “Xmas Special” and the other extras.
The code is really that simple. They should have run it at the latest on Boxing Day and fixed the problem for everyone, taking out the possibility of human error. And, if they really don’t have the ability to set up a script like that, then how about this one:
for each customer who has “Xmas Special Trailer” in their account,
if customer does not have “Xmas Special” then cancel “Xmas Special Trailer” order, refund customer for max(current price of “Xmas Special”, what they paid), send apology email and ask that they please try purchasing it again.
On Boxing Day, what was the price of the Doctor Who Christmas Special? Well, I don’t quite remember, but something over fifteen quid, I believe. That price has also since been corrected back to £3.99.
What’s the upshot of this long-and-no-doubt-very-boring-to-you-too saga? Well, just that I won’t preorder anything from iTunes again, and nor would I advise you to do so either. If the price then goes up on the “release” date, I just won’t buy it at all. Or buy the frickin’ blu. Unfortunately. 😦
In the meantime (30/12), iTunes support insist there’s nothing more they can do to make things right. Seriously?! And that, my friends, is why DRM is evil, and iTunes’ Customer Support may need to take notes from Amazon.
If you buy one or two episodes from a TV season on iTunes, you have the opportunity to buy the complete season at a reduced price. This is a great idea, and useful if you ever wanted to cherrypick a good episode first and then wait to buy the rest on sale.
Here’s the rub: it only applies to episodes within the particular season package they’re in. As an example of what I mean:
I bought Line of Duty series 1-3 on sale for £14.99. Later, the complete series 1-4 is put on sale for £9.99 (it was a one day anniversary sale). Did I get credit for owning series 1-3? No! I still would have had to pay £9.99 for the series 4 I wanted. So I didn’t buy it. That sale just made me feel stupid for buying 1-3 when I knew series 4 was also available. Lesson learnt: don’t buy a boxed-set on sale which doesn’t have all available seasons included (* unless it’s at a ridiculously good discount).
What’s that you say? That’s no different from buying a DVD boxed set and then seeing a more-complete version on sale: nobody gets credit for the original purchase? Au contraire, Blackadder! I can sell or gift the first boxed, set as it’s physical media. It’s still worth something. I get credit for it. While I’m not suggesting I should have been able to pay £2.50 for the fourth series, I really should have been given some sort of discount or credit. Even an extra couple of quid off might have swayed me. It’s a real missed opportunity.
Often iTunes has a good sale for the first season (or two) of a show. It’s a good idea: people can try something and see if they like it. But then they’re left in a limbo. Do they buy future seasons individually, at prices not nearly as good as before? Or do they get the boxed set on sale, essentially making their initial outlay worthless? What’s the solution? Well, either do more sales with future individual seasons, or give some sort of credit for past purchases.
Mixing HD with SD
Apparently, iTunes cannot sell a boxed set from a long-running series with the first seasons in SD and the later seasons in HD. You can only buy it all in SD. For example, Flight of the Conchords. Season 1 is in SD, season 2 is in HD, the “Complete Collection” bundle is only SD. That bundle is worthless to me. I’d never buy it. (In the end I bought the DVD for season 1, and the HD iTunes release for season 2.)
I have the series 1-3 “Deluxe” edition of Sherlock on iTunes. And series 4. These two purchases sit side-by-side on my account. I would love them to be combined. One icon, or four icons at worst. But not two. If I expand the 1-3 icon, I get a very long list of episodes, followed by the extras. Scrolling down is a real chore. Can I edit the metadata for any episode and get it to “stack” better? Well, if it’s all downloaded I can. But if it’s in the cloud, I can’t. Can Apple please allow us to edit metadata locally for cloud-stored objects? Metadata takes so little disk space that this should be an option.
If I look at iTunes’ TV Programmes main page, I can’t see pricing for most items without “clicking through” to the individual page. In other words, browsing becomes a real chore. Click, “too expensive”, back, click, “too expensive”, back. I have no good overview.
Deals for “Under £20” can mean £19.99 or £6.99. This is a massive difference which you only get to see by clicking through. I understand iTunes probably collects and analyzes click-through data for its own marketing, but why not have a hovering tooltip so, if you pause over an item for a second, it registers your interest and tells you the price. How difficult would that be to implement? Well, I can tell you it’s not. They have insta-tooltips on the “Top Charts” panel (they don’t always appear but that’s a minor thing usually solved by restarting iTunes) so why not everywhere else?
If something becomes a chore, I tend to stop doing it. I might miss a bargain but I don’t care. Opportunity lost. In the meantime, something like CheapCharts becomes my iTunes portal.
Apple never really thought through the situation where a customer might need access to multiple stores. For instance, I mostly use the UK store, yet I’ve moved to Germany and there are times I need to use the German store (mainly for apps). But Apple IDs can only be linked to one store. So I have two IDs, one for England, one for Germany. And I need to switch between them, a lot.
Now, when I switch to my German account, every cloud-stored video I bought from the English one disappears until I switch back. And I can’t update my apps from one store until I sign back into that store. Switching is a chore. So Apple ought to do one of two things:
- Allow access to multiple stores from one ID (my preferred choice);
- Allow signing in from multiple accounts and be smart about which one applies in any situation.
Enough of The Hatchet Job Already – It’s Not Apple’s Fault!
Apple doesn’t set the pricing, you say? It’s the fault of the distributors who use the iTunes store to sell their products at the prices they (not Apple) control?
Well, yes, on the face of it. But who coordinates the sales? I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that’s Apple. They don’t have any say at all, any good advice to give these TV & film companies? They’re not at all interested in increasing their sales (and, I guess, their percentage commission)?
If I were in charge of the Store, I’d have tools in place so that a seller (say, the BBC) could be made aware whenever there’s a negative disparity between the DVD/SD or blu/HD price for every product, perhaps even tools to link the prices, so that digital is the same price, or less when it is an inferior package with less extras (which is more often the case).
I’d link to the major online retailers (or maybe just Amazon) so, for instance, CBS would be flagged that the final season of The Good Wife is £24.99 on iTunes (SD price) and £10.64 on Amazon for the DVD set. How much money does CBS make from a £10.64 DVD? I would expect that it would be a lot less than what they would get for pricing it @ £9.99 on iTunes.
Perhaps distributors are blasé about digital sales. Maybe CBS think 1000 sales at £25 is better than 10,000 at £10. I don’t know. I’m not privy to projected sales volume changes per price tier, for a particular genre. But I bet iTunes is. Or, at least, they should be. All I know is that, as a customer, I do check digital vs physical prices as a matter of habit and it’s rare that digital wins. I also know a bargain when I see one and I’ll take a punt at a series when it’s priced well in relation to its physical media counterpart, given all the disadvantages the digital version may have (as detailed above).
And yes: a lot of my criticisms (price, DRM, streaming) can also be applied to other digital retailers. If the excuse for anything done poorly is that so-and-so-does-the-same-thing, that’s not a good excuse.
Okay, bullet points. Apple wants more of my iTunes cash, here’s what they should do*:
(* or be convincing their content providers to do)
- Add a music buying FAQ;
- Price film and series cheaper than equivalent DVD/blu. Cheaper on sale, cheaper when not on sale;
- Add support for 3D: if YouTube can do it, so can you;
- Be more creative with bundle deals;
- Make film extras downloadable, and have them match their physical disc counterparts;
- Include more subtitle tracks, including foreign-language subtitles;
- Always include a surround track when one is available;
- Make 4K downloadable (at the very least for a few days at a time) and viewable on any hardware with the capability to display it (and not just your very latest hardware which you want us to buy);
- Offer content providers a DRM-free selling option if they should choose to do so – no riskier than selling mp3, and much more popular with the vast majority of users who prefer a cheap, legal solution;
- Finally fix what I have dubbed the “trailer” bug – the experience has left me (and doubtless others) reluctant to trust the Preorder system;
- Improve tools given to Customer Support, so they can undo costly errors;
- Perhaps make it a rule that Customer Support cannot delete anything from a customer’s library without asking them first (and/or give such power back to the customer via an online form, so the customer can see exactly what they might lose from their own accounts before hitting “Refund Order”);
- Work with content providers to credit people with something for their past purchases whenever there is a boxed set on offer which includes a lot of material that is already in their account;
- Offer bundles with both HD and SD, for those series which only have HD in their later seasons;
- Allow users to edit metadata for shows they’ve purchased that’s in the cloud;
- Sort out the portal to give prices on films and TV shows without the customer having to click through every single time;
- Have the option to link Apple IDs to multiple stores, or to be signed in to multiple IDs at once.
Epilogue – Giving Peace A Chance
Let me add a couple of things in conclusion. The above are my personal first-world-problems / grumblings towards iTunes, and many of them probably won’t ever apply to you. I accept that iTunes’ Customer Service people are humans who sometimes makes human errors, but they should have the tools on hand to fix things should they make any. Human errors are inevitable, I was unlucky, it’s a stressful time of year. Maybe these customer service bods are overworked and should be given less hours or be paid more, hmm? 🙂 On the other hand, I still feel very much out-of-pocket, and the whole customer support experience has left me feeling very much worse about iTunes than right before I contacted them. It shouldn’t have been like that. 😦
Things I love about iTunes include:
- Not having to sit through minutes of legal disclaimers & ads before watching a film;
- Grabbing a good deal on a film or show and then being able to watch it immediately;
- Being able to watch the latest ep of a series the day after its original transmission, not weeks or months after the last ep has aired;
- Once in a while being offered first episodes of series for free; that’s a really good idea and I’ve bought series from the promotion that otherwise I’d have avoided, even on sale.
Over to you now!
Do you agree with me about iTunes? What did I get right? What did I get wrong? What would you add? What else should Apple fix to improve your digital shopping experience? What are your priorities? Do you prefer other digital stores? If so, which ones and why? And: what did you think of the Doctor Who Christmas Special? 🙂