Annoying software: Is Apple iTunes the new AOL?

Back in 2000 when AOL was king -- and incredibly irritating. Apple's iTunes seems to be catching up. Here are seven reasons why iTunes may be ready to don our Annoying Software crown.

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 US$100 music device and online music service.

Ring any bells, Apple?

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Tom Spring

PC World (US online)

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