How Is Tim Cook Not Livid When Apple Steals From Children?
Nov 8, 2012 5:00 AM PT
I cannot believe that Apple, my favorite company in the whole world, still has its head stuck in the sand over deceptive in-app purchases in games targeted at small children.
Sure, I heard the horror stories about Smurfs and zoo animals and buying food and supplies with children tap, tap, tapping their way to hundreds or thousands of dollars of in-app purchases. Sure, I was irritated, but I figured Apple would get the problem under control. Seriously.
If any of my customers somehow spent thousands of dollars on little blue cartoon creatures, even if they were poorly supervised children, I'd be hopping mad. If I were a CEO, I'd be livid that any of my underlings let it happen. I mean really, Steve Jobs was hell-bent on putting a "dent in the universe" and instead he creates a system that only dents the bank accounts of busy, struggling parents?
No way I'd let that happen.
I believed in Steve Jobs, and I believed in Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Here's What Happened
So when my young son managed to spend more than US$50 on just two in-app purchases in less than two minutes with a brand-new free game, I was livid. I was angry at the developer, of course, and mad at myself that I let my attention leave the child who was sitting right next to me on the couch. More to the point, I was angry at Apple. I haven't felt so let down and quite so betrayed in ages. Usually I feel betrayed by my bank or the finance industry as they constantly change terms, not Apple. I've been promised a refund -- more on that later -- but that's beside the point.
Let's think through this. Apple gets 30 percent of in-app purchases, and boom, in just a couple of minutes, Apple processed and took $15 from one its most loyal customers. Heck, I'm so loyal, I write about Apple and share the Apple love with millions of other people every week. Now, from everything I can tell, it seems like Tim Cook is a quality human being. A smart, driven, astoundingly strategic and also tactical guy. Definitely not some dude on the street selling snake oil.
So how is Tim Cook not absolutely livid about this?
The Responsible Parent Argument
As I tell the story of how this can still happen, let's go through the irresponsible parent excuse. For starters, if you don't have small children or have never been responsible for small children for long periods of time, you probably don't understand the dynamics of the parental situation. Some of you think the parents are just irresponsible -- or that they are technical idiots and therefore it's their fault.
Maybe you can imagine it, but I, for example, have never found myself under fire in hostile enemy territory with real live ammunition whizzing by my head and explosions of shrapnel all around me. Sure, I can say I'd keep it together and that I could actually look down the sights of my rifle and make nice clean shots at men trying to kill me, but how do I know for sure? I don't.
I can imagine, but my imagination will be a far cry from the true reality of the situation. So, yeah, I respect soldiers. I know they've been deep in it in ways I haven't. And parents of triplets? Yup, I have no real clue about what that's like, either.
So you start with that -- respect -- and go from there.
Doesn't Take Much
Still, here's an illustration of how a child can get sucked into an in-app purchase and a parent lets it happen -- and this is a tame, easy-to-imagine scenario for most any regular middle-class, mostly engaged parent: A child is sick, another is tired and hungry, and the pressure of your job is beating down around your head and shoulders. Who knows if you're going to lose your job or if your spouse is going to be laid off or if a whole division is going to be sold, scrapped, or rejiggered to meet a brand-new secret budget.
Suddenly, things that were safe and solid and predictable are the opposite of those things. Suddenly one child trips and falls into a coffee table, and boom, there's a trip to QuickCare for some professional-grade antiseptic and glue and creative hair-tying to seal up the wound. You feel lucky that's all it was and that it didn't require stitches or staples. Now you're out of milk, the soup is burning, and one child is begging not for attention -- because you already read nine books and played imagination dinosaur adventure all around the house -- but the child is begging for a new game on your old iPhone 3G.
Something to engage an active mind. Something fast and fun and anything new. A free racing game called "Top Monster Truck Racing -- A Real Fun Offroad Game by Pocket Legend Games" seems innocuous enough, right?
In less than a minute, while trying to play the game, your 5-year-old is getting frustrated. Something is wrong. "It won't go! It just won't go!" The old iPhone is handed to a parent who thinks maybe the child got stuck in an advertisement and instead sees a pop-up window asking if you want to buy the in-app purchase of some monster truck for $9.99. What? Heck, no!
So then the parent takes a closer look, and boom, wow, it really is easy to shop in the game, but now the parent is afraid to touch any of the trucks because it's not clear which truck is for sale and which you already own. How do you even start a race? In fact, the parent is now so confused and afraid to tap on anything that the iOS device is promptly confiscated.
By the time you can get to your Mac to log into iTunes to check your purchase history, you see that your 5-year-old somehow managed to buy a $29.99 in-app upgrade to get some sort of monster truck. Holy macaroni, you're pissed. You feel betrayed. You trusted Apple! How would Apple let something like this happen so easily -- so quickly? Like, in two minutes?
But it's worse, as you start trying to "report a problem" and get your breathing under control, your recent purchases screen refreshes in iTunes. There's another in-app purchase! For $19.99, plus tax! Suddenly, in just a couple minutes of game play, sitting right next to you on the couch, your 5-year-old child spent more than $50.
You can be the geekiest Apple-loving geek who owns every single iPod ever made and has a gazillion apps on your 64GB iPhone 5 and knows everything digital inside and out, but I'd hope you'd still see how letting this sort of scenario happen -- in 2012 -- is utterly wrong.
It should not happen.
Apple Makes Good? Not Exactly
Doesn't Apple have a process to deal with this sort of problem? Sort of. Within a few hours of my complaint to Apple, an Apple representative responded to my email, validated how I might be upset (nice tactic) and approved a refund while also noting that this situation warranted an exception to the "All Sales Are Final" terms and conditions of the App Store. In 5 to 7 business days, I should see the money credited back to my credit card. So that worked, but not as well as I might hope.
To get to this resolution, I opened iTunes on my Mac, logged into my account, then found recent purchases, then found the link to report a problem. That launched a Web browser page with a bunch of choices, none of which seemed particularly apt to my problem, which was, "parent feels cheated by crappy game developer and wants a refund as well as the game developer banned for life."
Instead, I selected "Other iTunes Store Topics," and hoped for a response, which I got. Still, I get the impression that Apple wants to help customers who experience this problem -- but they definitely do not, under any circumstances, want to draw any attention to the issue.
Issuing a refund is like giving a person with a head cold a dose of Vitamin C and saying, "You'll feel better in 5 to 7 business days." At best, it fixes the symptom. As for the underlying problem, it does nothing.
Not the Apple Way?
To me, this is a clear-cut issue. Nudity, for example, is full of shades of gray. How far is too far? Apple draws the line pretty quickly with anything potentially smutty -- but then allows game apps targeted at children that have nasty in-app purchase options that are so easy to click on that it's hard to play the game without making purchases. Seriously, my 5-year-old was upset because he couldn't get the "game to go" and he was tapping the pop-up windows just trying to make them go away so he could make the trucks move.
And he spent more than $50 doing it without ever getting to play the game.
So, two minutes sitting right next to me, and boom, I'm out $50. This is anti-Apple, is it not? This isn't what Apple is all about, is it? It can't be.
The County Fair Example
I was trying to put this into perspective, to understand the situation, to figure out how in the world this can happen in 2012. Take, for example, a county fair where they have carnival games.
If you go to a county fair and play the games, the adults all know they are rigged. The milk bottles are weighted at the bottom so that only a very hard and very perfect throw can possibly knock them all down to let you win the prize. Kids don't know this, but they see the stuffed gorillas and they want to try. It's just a buck or two, so you let it go as a learning experience. But then you come to the balloons-and-the-darts game, and think, "OK, here's a reasonably fair game, right? The balloons are surely not lined with dart-proof vests."
If this carnival game were an Apple iOS game, the rules would be a bit different. Sure, you can throw darts at the balloons for free, but it turns out the wall would be made up of differently sized balloons -- a few little teeny balloons and a lot of very large balloons.
Your child gets a beat-up old dart, and it turns out he needs to hit the very small balloons to play for free. Of course, no one but a dart olympian could hit the small balloons, and inevitably the dart hits a big balloon. There's a big satisfying pop and the carnival game runner hands your kid another dart and asks if he's sure he wants to throw again.
The kid throws again and of course taps (I mean hits) another big balloon. At this point, the carnival game runner hands your kid a fancy bundle of silvery darts and quietly takes $29.99 out of your pocket.
Seriously. This is essentially what is going on -- and Apple is supporting it.
If this happened to any kid I know in real life, in-person, every single dad I know would leap across the little ledge and start kicking butt and taking names. After the local cops pulled the dad off the carnival game runner, they'd drag the game runner off to jail and find the crying kid some cotton candy. Some things are clearly right and wrong, and this is one of those things.
If you deceptively rob someone in real life, there are consequences that could easily occur. So it doesn't happen all that often. But if you do it online with the blessing of Apple or a major corporation, somehow this turns into a shrug-your-shoulders kind of problem where it's your fault because you weren't aware that after you sign in and download an app, you can buy anything at all via the App Store from an in-app purchase within 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, you have to enter in your Apple ID password again.
I'm 100 percent positive that a 5-year-old kid could never guess my password or accidentally figure it out without first failing so many times that he'd holler in frustration. Because I personally seem to have to enter my password every other time I use my iPhone, this little feature never even crossed my mind. Much less that it would be so easy to buy an in-app purchase that a kid could do it sitting right next to me in just a couple minutes of trying to race a truck.
Embarrassed to Be an Apple Fan
Me, right now I'm embarrassed to be an Apple fan. Why? Because Apple is better than this, far far better than this. Why? Because no parent that I know -- or can even imagine -- thinks in-app purchases for games targeted at small children are a good idea.
If Apple thinks this is too difficult to manage, it's not. I think Apple could easily crowdsource the approval of games to parents. Every parent I know or imagine -- well, I would trust them to make the call on what's deceptive or not. And all the parents I know would trust me to do it for them, too. It's not hard. If a game is about baiting a child into an in-app purchase, it's deceptive. It's bad. It should be rejected at best, and the developer should be lucky that a real physical dad doesn't meet him in a dark alley.
Actually, I'm willing to participate with Apple. I'd be happy to start yanking apps left and right. In no uncertain terms I'll tell the developers why: "Because you're trying to bait a child into buying something."
This is not hard, Apple. This is not hard at all. Cramming tiny little components into a super-slim iPad mini, yeah, that's hard. But in-app purchases for games targeted at children? Come on. You can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on finely crafted television commercials and then waste all that effort by letting developers play underhanded games with your best customers?
OK, Then, How About Parental Controls?
There are some parental controls. Obviously, I went around the house and collected every iOS device I could find, new and old, and started navigating to Settings, General, to Restrictions, then scrolled down to find a way to turn off In-App Purchases. Wow. It's great that I have a setting, but really, that's what I thought the constant bugging of my password was for. Not, it turns out, if you're in a 15-minute window, though.
Let's think about this. As an adult, have I ever bought an app or downloaded a free app and then, because I was so enamored with the in-app sales option, bought an in-app purchase within 15 minutes? Not once. This isn't something adult parents think about happening because they never experience it. They don't make willy-nilly in-app purchases right after downloading and installing apps, so they never run into the 15-minute window where you can do it.
Kids, though, that's another thing altogether.
Parents, too, can see that the "shop" button is strategically placed right where a kid's thumb is going to hit it, on purpose or not. Parents can avoid it, but kids can't.
So, is it the parent's fault? Maybe. Either way, if I were Tim Cook, I'd be hopping mad. There's no way I'd let any developer irritate my best customers who are actively introducing my next generation of loyal consumer to the Apple world. Tactically, at least I'd make sure that doesn't happen. Of course, as a man and a parent, any developer trying to pull this kind of move would get tossed from my playground and feel the full weight of an Apple glare that could stun a small rodent and burn the eyebrows off a normal man.
I get the impression Steve Jobs used to be able to glare like that, and I thought Tim Cook had similar tools.
However, right now, in 2012, Tim Cook is still enabling this kind of thing. In fact, of the $50 charged to me -- had I not noticed and not thrown a fit -- Apple would have pocketed 30 percent, $15.
How does that make me feel about Apple?
I'm just amazed and disappointed that this is still possible and that it's an issue at all. It should be physically embarrassing to Tim Cook. If I were CEO of Apple, I'd be pissed as hell, and I'd draw a line in the sand. The rule is easy:
If you create a game targeted to children and you enable in-app purchases, it better be freaking difficult to make an in-app purchase. If it seems too easy, if your placement of buttons makes it easy to accidentally tap, or if you make your in-app purchase buttons all pretty with cupcakes and sprinkles on them, you'll be rejected. If you seem to prey on small children, you'll be rejected. If we think you're doing it on purpose, rejection. Who will be the arbitrators, the judges for us? Parents. Parents will approve or reject our games. Keep that in mind. And if you don't like it? Take your games elsewhere because you're not going to destroy the trust that we've built with our busy, loyal customers.
So like I've said before, the iPhone 5, it looks like it was honed from a single, solid brick of magic. Love it. It's an amazing feat of engineering. But letting developers create and peddle games targeted at small children with deceptive in-app purchases?
It's the exact opposite of the iPhone 5.
Please, Mr. Cook, will you tell me that you're outraged that this is still going on in your store? And please, Mr. Cook, will you just fix the damn problem?