Apple’s Troublesome (Trial) Cancel Culture

By | July 26, 2020

Apple, about to report Q3 earnings this week, have quietly changed the rules when it comes to their own services. If you take up its offer a YEAR-long trial for its Apple TV+ product, you better remember to make a note in your calendar to cancel it 364 days hence. Probably not surprising, but certainly irritating, and a reminder of how sneaky their processes can be, given their claims to be focused only on making beautiful objects.

I see a bigger problem, too: when big tech uses its heft to move into something that is not its traditional preserve, it reveals more of itself than perhaps it would like to. When Apple sells you overpriced devices you tend to accept the premium. After all, they’re great products, right? When it gives you Numbers, Pages etc for free, you tend not to grumble. They’re good apps, almost as good as their counterparts from Google and Microsoft. But when it moves the goalposts on its own platform to boost its chances of success for a new service of its own, you have to ask, is this a glimpse into what is really going on behind the scenes?

And this is not a sideshow. After all, revenue from Apple’s services — which includes Apple Pay, Apple Music, iTunes and the App Store—among others— has trebled in the past six years, according to Statista. (Apple’s overall annual revenue since 2014 has risen by 42%, again according to Statista.)

Source: Statista

2020-07-28 08:53 addendum: And a good point was made by Scott Galloway (h/t Casey Newton) that the whole reason Apple is giving me a year’s free TV+ (and making it hard for me to cancel it easily) is because it’s cross-subsidising from its insanely profitable hardware division in order to add value to that. He would have Congress ask this question: 

Q: Apple TV+ is offering consumers $1 billion in original content for every .80c a month the consumer spends on your Apple TV+ streaming video service. Isn’t it your opportunity to differentiate your $1,300 phones and fund Apple TV+ from the revenues of an unrelated product that allows you to offer a media product at well below cost? In sum, isn’t Apple guilty of “dumping,” that is, buying market share with unfeasibly low prices?

I would add that while, yes, it’s dumping, the main point is to build market share with its service. Apple TV+ isn’t just about selling more hardware, although inevitably it will. It’s about becoming the gatekeeper/platform for all TV and video subscriptions. Apple Music, similarly. It aims to ‘tame’ Netflix and Spotify, respectively. 

Pestered to sign up for their underwhelming TV+ service, I eventually relented when told I could get it free for a year because I had bought a new iPad (well, refurbished, actually, but who’s counting.)

I signed up easily enough, but then when I received the invoice, I do what I always do if I am not sure I want to renew — I cancelled it.

Or tried to.

Turns out I can’t — well not without losing the trial immediately:

The text reads:

if you cancel, you and your family members will immediately lose access to Apple TV+ and the remainder of your 1 year free trial. You cannot reactivate this trial.

(Interestingly you can’t copy the text as text, something that’s true across the whole iTunes (MacOS) app. I suppose this is to deter scraping, but it’s not consistent with other MacOs apps, and is detrimental to the user experience.)

Turns out, this is something they do with Apple Music too: It says very explicitly on this page that

If you cancel during a trial period, you might lose access to content immediately.

In some ways this makes sense. They’re not going to continue giving stuff away if you have no intention of paying for it. But the next sentence highlights how poor this is in terms of customer rights and principles:

If you signed up for a free or discounted trial subscription and you don’t want to renew it, cancel it at least 24 hours before the trial ends.

In other words — you need to keep a very good record of when your trial is going to expire, and if you’ve decided you’re going to let it lapse, you need to remember to cancel it just before it expires.

I have a few questions:

Is this new?

On the first count, yes, it is. Apple seems to have introduced this at some point in the past year or so. Up until then Apple presented itself as the Caring One, reminding folks to cancel their trial subscriptions before the trial ends. This one from March 2018 in the Internet Archive:

I can’t locate when this page was changed, but it’s some time in the last 18 months.

Certainly the terms and conditions were also changed at some point. This one from 2017 makes no mention of the policy, whereas the current one does.

Do other apps do it?

Apple Music, yes. A Reddit thread from February 2019 claimed something similar happening — probably more egregious, because they had ported all their music preferences over from Spotify only to find access blocked immediately after cancelling the trial. Interestingly, there the discussion points to an official Apple discussion page from February 2018 where a ‘community specialist’ quotes the existing terms, namely

If you cancel during your trial period, you’ll continue to have access to the entire Apple Music catalog until the date that you would have been billed for the full price.

The reddit user said Apple staff kept apologising but couldn’t help him. So it seems that between February 2018 and 2019 policy changed, and no one has updated Apple’s own Communities page.

And there’s a Vice story from 2019 about the generally unpleasant experience users get from trying to extricate themselves from free trials. It recommends users cancel the trial as soon as they sign up to avoid getting stung — something they say can be done with Amazon Prime, Spotify, ESPN+ and CBS All Access. At least of the time of writing the piece. Things might have changed. They certainly have for Apple users.

Is it fair to users?

Well, I’m not a fan of the way Apple (or most companies) handle subscription. Everything seems to be automatic, and there’s rarely warning or an option to discontinue — or to change the level of your subscription, if relevant — before you’re charged. Yes, Apple do allow you to cancel retroactively if you spot it in time, but the only way to know is to check your email for any invoices. I am probably not the only one that notices any ‘invoice’ emails tend to arrive quite a bit after an actual purchase, confusing the reader when they see the title of the email, which is always “Your invoice from Apple” rather than something more informative.

But is it fair? Well, it’s a free trial so they can do what they like. But I suspect consumer watchdogs would have something to say. Does Apple accord other services using their platform the same privilege?

And comparing it with some other services, Google Play Music explicitly states that

You can keep using your subscription until the end of the billing period during which you cancel.

(That said, Google has some practices that are either misleading or onerous in this field. This support page details the experience of several people who found they were signed up for YouTube subscriptions they didn’t want and couldn’t cancel.)

I don’t like any of this. I don’t think users should be hoodwinked into buying something, especially a subscription. The fact that there are videos explaining how to cancel an Apple TV+ subscription, for example, tells me something isn’t right.

Cancelling something should be as easy as signing up for something. The reason people like me cancel a subscription (or trial subscription) as soon as we’ve signed up is because we don’t want to be stung for a payment we didn’t intend to make, and, essentially, because we no longer trust the companies we’re subscribing to. That’s a pretty poor situation. (Especially if you’re a brand that relies 100% on your transparency and credibility.)

So if we’re really going to go down this unbundled subscription XaaS (everything as a Service) route, where we subscribe to lots of different services, from newsletters to our TV watching, then let’s make it as easy to cancel as it is to sign up. In that sense at least, Spotify and Netflix are leading the pack. And look at what Canva do — certainly no longer a minnow, but respectful enough of their users to not charge them on the sly:

But they are still in the role of disrupters rather than incumbents. Once an incumbent, you become a technopoly and can impose your own rules.

Apple: if you want us to like you, make sure that as services become an increasingly important part of your revenue stream, you don’t make us think you are Evil.

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