Resnikoff’s Parting Shot: The Negatives of iTunes Plus

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Apple recently dropped the price tag on DRM-free, iTunes Plus downloads from $1.29 to 99-cents.

That represents a consumer-friendly move, yet pricing is only part of the usability puzzle on the revamped iTunes Store.  And despite the normalized price tags, iTunes Plus still represents a step backward.

Upon launch in late May, iTunes Plus seemed a bit sloppy – users were asked to upgrade into a premium tier to enjoy higher-quality, more expensive selections that lacked locks-and-keys.  Those that dabbled were given a somewhat complicated proposition, and jumping back
into the cheap seats was a hassle.

Up until recently, Steve Jobs had been a staunch supporter of uniform pricing, and the latest shift returns the store to its humble roots.  And the ultimate motivation for introducing iTunes Plus in the first place came from the outside.

A DRM-free move depressurized a European regulatory glare that focused on a resistance by Apple to license FairPlay, the content protection framework for the iTunes Store.  Jobs was forced to play a consumer-unfriendly game, and charge more for the unprotected EMI catalog in the process.

Now, that compromise has been simplified somewhat.  iTunes Plus remains but at a lower price, and a “+” sign indicates a higher-quality track throughout.  Got questions?  The FAQs can help, and users are no longer forced to pick a side. All of the content is blended into the same store, and Plus automatically replaces regular selections.  For the same price, users can grab a superior and more flexible version, when available.

The only problem is that a large percentage of buyers simply don’t care.  And that was originally the beauty of the iTunes Store – protected tracks seemed benign or irrelevant, because most users stayed within the iPod+iTunes ecosystem.  DRM has always been the dirty laundry of digital music, and Apple largely handled the protection mess behind the scenes.

Now, the strings are showing – and that means confusion and decreased consumer confidence.  Instead of a simple download, consumers are suddenly aware of protections, compatibility, sound quality, and everything in-between.

A normalized, 99-cent price point offers only so much help.  And the coexistence of protected and unprotected creates a number of unfortunate experiences.

Want to upgrade your previously purchased tracks into iTunes Plus selections?  Apple still charges a 30-cent upgrade fee.  But the user who buys a track for the first time in the iTunes Plus format pays 99-cents.

Another snag comes from “Complete My Album,” a once-simple feature that now gets swallowed into a more confusing experience.  The concept initially allowed the user to purchase an album while receiving credit for album cuts already purchased.  In the current context, if a protected track is now available in iTunes Plus, the user must first pay the additional 30-cents, then pay the remaining cost of the album.

Another hairy detail arises.  Because iTunes doesn’t offer MP3s – it brokers in unprotected AACs, a choice that offers only partial compatibility with competing MP3 players.  That means more snags, and potentially more headaches.

Those compromises are annoying, but unlikely to erode the dominance of the iTunes Store.  Yet the entrance of Amazon MP3 offers an interesting competitor, simply because every download offered by Amazon is in the same, MP3-based format.  In fact, the price drop on iTunes Plus closely followed the launch of Amazon MP3, which drops per-download pricing as low as 89-cents.

The latest pricing move may have also been motivated by sluggish uptake on the iTunes Plus catalog.  After all, the concept charges a higher price tag for something fans may be uninterested in.  A higher-quality, DRM-free download sounds interesting theoretically, though scant sales data indicates unenthusiastic uptake.

As time wears on, more and more content will shed its protected cloak.  And that will slowly melt protected into DRM-free, alleviating confusion along the way.  But until that happens, Apple will be offering a less satisfying consumer experience, despite the reversion towards uniform pricing.

Paul Resnikoff, Editor