going deeper than a force click with musings ON the world of apple
Adam Banks on digital
content’s shelf life
Amazon’s victory over Nook in the ebook market is a reminder that, in the digital world, paying for something doesn’t always mean you get to keep it
Kindle or Nook? Ebooks were mostly one or the other, until, in March, the book finally shut on Nook. With losses spooking investors, the platform’s owner, Barnes & Noble, said it would no longer sell Nooks or books in the UK. Users who chose it are stuck with devices that can’t access new content. In short, it’s a tick-tock trap for Nook book pickers tricked by fickle Nook book backers – bad news for everyone but Dr Seuss fans.
The possibility of content becoming obsolete is older than electronics. Around the turn of the 20th century, hand-cranked wax cylinder recordings could only be played on the appropriate machine, which in turn was useless for cylinders in the new formats that often appeared. Anyone with a VHS tape collection will sympathise. Today, it’s not only innovation that renders content unplayable. Geoblocking is one example: like UK DVD players refused to show US discs, HBO makes Brits wait to watch YouTube clips of John Oliver. He’s our comedian, dammit!
App stores brought a more insidious risk: if an app is withdrawn by its developer, you may find you can’t reinstall it from the cloud. Worse, iTunes audiobooks came with this fail built in: they didn’t show up in the Purchased tab of the Music or iTunes apps. That’s recently been fixed, so you can redownload them if you can access your iTunes account. Apple tries to ensure you don’t lose this, using two-factor authentication to prevent you being hacked, and an account recovery process if you mess that up.
Providers aren’t always so accommodating. Talking of Amazon, shopper Greg Nelson found his amazon.co.uk account blocked, as reported by the Guardian, because he’d
The possibility of content becoming obsolete is older than electronics
returned too many items: about 10% of the 343 he’d bought. His gift card balance immediately became worthless.
Can they do that? The Consumer Rights Act 2015 requires that any potentially unfair terms are clearly presented up front, but Amazon’s policy is not – and might be unlawful if it was, because it would limit by implication the customer’s statutory rights to return unwanted or faulty goods.
Again, this isn’t new. In a succession of ‘banning’ controversies, gamers were locked out of their purchases for arbitrarily judged infractions. In 2012, Electronic Arts’ Origin platform and Valve’s Steam both revised their policies after consumer campaigns. Amazon seems to have no such plans.
Nook owners can still read their books, if they followed emailed instructions quickly enough. But there’s a deep irony in Nook giving up just as Apple pays a $450m fine for fixing the prices of ebooks to compete with Amazon. Who’s the monopolist here?
Increasingly, content is rented rather than bought. Maybe we want it that way. Or maybe we’ve come to suspect ‘ buying’ no longer means anything. If you pay to own something, you expect to keep it, just like the books on your shelves. Unless tech firms and the law can do more to guarantee that, it’s hard to see any future in paying for content at all.
ABOUT ADAM BANKS
Adam is Apple to the core, having reported on the world of Macs since the 1990s. As a writer, designer, art director and print production contractor, he divides his time between the Northern Powerhouse and the Creative Cloud.