APPLE COMPUTER DID SOMETHING unusual this week: It acknowledged a mistake and changed course. That's not quite as big a deal as the pope admitting Galileo was right about the whole Earth-orbiting-the-sun thing, but it's close.
At issue was iTunes, a popular program that helps people create a digital library for the songs and videos stored on their computers. It also enables them to download tunes and TV episodes from Apple's online store. Available for Macs and for PCs powered by Microsoft's Windows, it's an impressive piece of software that comes close to matching Apple's chest-pounding description, "The best Windows app ever written."
Last week, Apple released a new version of iTunes with a feature called the MiniStore. When users clicked on the name of a song or video in their library, the MiniStore suggested items to buy from Apple's online store.
Unbeknownst to users, though, the software was reporting their clicks to Apple and Omniture, a company that analyzes customer data. This monitoring unnerved privacy advocates, who called on Apple to disclose what the MiniStore was doing and keep it turned off unless a user chose to turn it on.
Apple shrugged off the complaints at first, saying users could turn off the MiniStore if they didn't like it. Besides, Apple said, it didn't store any of the information it received. Late Tuesday, however, the company quietly changed the feature to give users more information and control over whether to activate it. For a company with a public attitude that often borders on the self-righteous, it was a surprising turnabout.
The move provided a solution that could serve as a model for the emerging generation of personalized tech products and services. The Internet enables distributors to tailor their pitches and match products to buyers better than ever before. This kind of targeting can be a boon for consumers and merchants alike, but it may require consumers to disclose more about themselves than they're comfortable doing. And whenever there's a trade-off between privacy and personalization, it's far better for companies to ask for their customers' permission in the beginning than to seek their forgiveness later.
Give credit to Apple for responding as quickly as it did and for changing the MiniStore's default state from "on" to "off." Temporarily gathering information on users' tastes in entertainment isn't nearly as objectionable as, say, secretly installing software on their computers that hackers could exploit, as Sony BMG notoriously did with its copy-protected CDs last year. But even die-hard Mac users care about their privacy, and they should be the ones deciding whether to part with any of it.