Annoying software: Is Apple iTunes the new AOL?

By Tom Spring, PC World |  Internet, AOL, Apple

Remember how much everyone loved to hate AOL at the turn of the century? AOL offered bloated software, piles of unwanted installation discs, a walled garden of content, an overloaded newbie network, and a pricey dial-up service.

AOL has changed a lot since then, even though it's still here to kick around. But who needs to pick on AOL when we have Apple's iTunes?

The status of Apple's iTunes today bears an uncanny resemblance to the dominance, influence, and nagging problems that AOL had in early 2000, when the ISP boasted 26.7 million paying subscribers and Steve Case was the Internet star of the moment.

Now, Steve Jobs is the much-admired digital maestro, with his iTunes media store and software that allows users to manage their iPods, iPhones, and Apple TV. But just as AOL reached great heights and subsequently made dismaying missteps, Apple is showing signs that it could be on a parallel trajectory.

Background

First, similar to AOL at its peak, iTunes has gazillions of users. Although Apple won't release a figure for that, it does brag that it has sold 100 million iPods, which likely puts the number of iTunes users in the stratosphere since that number doesn't even include iPhone users.

Recent iTunes troubles include last month's iPhone 3G activation nightmares, not to mention complaints of buggy software downloaded from the iTunes App Store. These issues followed reports from users about problems syncing first-generation iPhones.

iTunes is to digital media today what AOL was for the Internet circa the year 2000. Here are seven reasons why.

1. Bloat

Apple originally released iTunes as a tool for managing your iPod and a music store--that's it. The most recent release of iTunes (version 7.7) comes with too many other features and functions. You can use the software not only to manage and buy songs for your iPod but also to download games, grab movies, buy ring tones, manage your iPhone, and stream online Web radio stations. The list goes on.

I don't know about you, but when I want to update my iPod with new music, I find it obnoxious that iTunes is pushing "Top Music Videos" from the Pussycat Dolls and trying to convince me to buy episodes of the AMC TV series Mad Men.

Over the years AOL similarly weighted itself down with features such as the AOL Shopping Assistant toolbar for your browser, the AOL media player, AOL Wallet, and AOL SpyZapper (thanks, but no thanks). AOL also pitched products, many times not its own, which got the company into hot water on occasion.

Trying to use the basic functions of iTunes makes me feel the same way I do about using the basic functions of AOL: Getting involved with either of them seems like taking a trip through Times Square--too many ads and unwanted distractions.

2. System Hogging

AOL and iTunes are both resource-intensive; when running they slow down my Dell Dimension 8400 3.6-GHz P4 computer, configured with 3GB of RAM, significantly.

Loading either one feels like I'm strapping an elephant onto the top of my car and driving uphill. Everything--using Photoshop, opening and closing Firefox, working in Microsoft Office apps--moves sluggishly.

For me, this is the strongest argument yet for Apple to offer light program alternatives to iTunes for people who want just an iPod management tool. Sure, third-party iTunes alternatives (Amarok, Anapod Explorer, and SharePod) are around, but I'd like to see one reliable, single-function, free tool from Apple.

3. Stealth Updates

When you sign off of AOL, the software automatically updates itself, popping up an update indicator. You have to wait and wait for AOL before the software finally closes and relinquishes control of your desktop back to you. Still a mystery is what "updates" AOL decided to tack on. Often the only clue becomes apparent the next time you log on and you see a new toolbar or shopping aid in your AOL software.

Along the same lines--and far too often, as far as I'm concerned--my iTunes software always wants to be updated. And, until Apple faced scrutiny for the practice, it automatically delivered extra Apple services such as the Safari browser and QuickTime. It still will dump a new browser on your PC if you're not quick enough to uncheck Download Safari every time iTunes updates.

4. Proprietary Problems

Both AOL and iTunes don't work well, or at all, with outside services. AOL's instant-messaging protocol is fully able to communicate only with the Google Talk instant-messaging service. It can't do the same with the IM platforms from Microsoft or Yahoo.

AOL also has a walled garden of tools and content accessible exclusively to users of its software. Its proprietary nature has changed a lot from the days when you could check your AOL e-mail only through AOL software. But you still need to use its software to access many AOL chat rooms, premium multimedia features, and parental controls.

iTunes has its own propensity for proprietary features. Want to play a non-iTunes video on your iPod? To do so for free, you'll have to hunt down a solid third-party tool for converting videos. Conversely, iTunes doesn't work with Microsoft's Zune digital audio device or other MP3 players.

Also, despite Apple's recent decision to sell some DRM-free songs, most iTunes tunes still play only on iPods, a couple of Motorola phones, or a computer with iTunes software on it. (DRM-free songs from iTunes cost 30 cents more than regular $0.99 purchases.)

5. Lowest-Common-Denominator Attitudes

Just as AOL made getting on the Internet stupid-proof in the 1990s, Apple's iTunes made buying and downloading digital music and adding it to your iPod easy in the early 2000s. That ease of use comes with trade-offs. For example, iTunes does not allow you to add mobile-phone ring tones to your iPhone that you didn't purchase from Apple. And, as previously mentioned, iTunes won't transcode videos automatically--you have to use third-party software.

6. Marketing-Technique Madness

Marketing for AOL and for Apple's iPod differs in style, but not in ubiquity and obnoxiousness.

The carpet bombing of free AOL discs was possibly the most annoying marketing campaign ever waged last century. Some estimates put the number of discs shipped between 1993 and July 2006 at over 1 billion. In 2002, people started a campaign to collect the discs and deliver them back to AOL.

Just as omnipresent (and, to me, just as irritating) are Apple's "shadow dancers" ads, which feature peppy folks gyrating against solid colors to the sound of upbeat music. The imagery of the television spot quickly spread to billboards, bus stops, and thousands of poorly made parodies on YouTube.

At least Apple's campaign is more environmentally sound than those 1 billion free AOL discs.

7. Pains to Use Them

It's still a pain to accomplish basic tasks with AOL and with Apple's iTunes software.

In AOL, for instance, changing your default home page in the AOL browser or configuring the built-in e-mail application to retrieve messages from other accounts has ranged from hard to impossible. (Warning: You can't configure AOL's online-service software to retrieve non-AOL e-mail.)

With iTunes you encounter similar degrees of hassle when it comes to the basics. For instance, burning a CD requires the very unintuitive step of having to create an iTunes playlist first.

And, for many users, stripping iTunes songs of Apple's FairPlay DRM protection (so you can play a song purchased on iTunes on non-Apple MP3 players) has meant following a number of kludgey undocumented steps. Among them is the technique of burning a music CD using iTunes and ripping the same CD back to your PC. (By the way, you can use one of several programs, such as DoubleTwist or DRM Dumpster, to dispose of your iTunes songs' DRM.)

Apple--and Apple fanboys/fangirls--may take issue with the analogies presented here. But Apple might be well served to learn from some of the mistakes that I believe AOL made.

The number of loyal monthly AOL subscribers nose-dived in 2002 as millions of Internet users became more savvy and upgraded away from dial-up to broadband. Still other paying customers ditched the service altogether, opting for cheaper dial-up offerings.

These days, Apple is still top dog in digital music, but its cocky attitude--as evidenced when the company didn't even publicly acknowledge missteps in the rollout of the 3G iPhone last month--suggests that Jobs thinks Apple is impervious to the same fate that AOL suffered.

He'd better at least consider it. AOL's slow decline can be blamed in part on the online behemoth's inability to be nimble enough to meet consumers' changing demands for faster Internet access and a service that didn't feel like the Internet on training wheels.

AOL discovered that it couldn't keep up with Comcast and other rivals, and it also lost a lot of goodwill when it made things difficult for AOL users trying to cancel their accounts.

Apple is now seeing increased competition from Amazon and other services that sell music, videos, and audio books. And soon, the company may also face competition from Dell, which has announced an upcoming $100 music device and online music service.

Ring any bells, Apple?

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