iTunes, authorization, and multiple Macs

A while back, I found the most amazing lamps on the net. They come in a variety of styles, but each shares a common amazingly useful feature: they’re web-connected. Now, I can hear you laughing already—who needs a web-connected lamp? Well, these particular lamps are tied directly into the Wonderful World of Weather (WWoW for short), a web-based weather services company. Using a small LCD display on each lamp, I create a schedule based on expected weather conditions and personal preferences. If it’s going to be a cloudy day, for instance, the lamp in the den will come on. The lamps also automatically adjust for changes in daylight; the light in our living room always comes on 30 minutes after sunset, for example, regardless of the time of year.

Over time, we’ve accumulated quite a few of these lamps—we’ve got six or so in our home here, four more over at the beach house, and a couple more at our place in the islands. I love them, except for one amazingly annoying problem: due to licensing restrictions imposed by WWoW, only five lamps at a time can have an active program. If this were the only limitation, it wouldn’t necessarily be a show stopper. What makes it a huge problem is that I can only authorize or de-authorize a lamp from the lamp itself. Even worse, I have no way of knowing which lamps are authorized without checking each lamp’s individual settings.

As you can imagine, this is incredibly frustrating. With a dozen lamps spread through three locations, I’m constantly forgetting to de-authorize lamps that I won’t be using. When those lamps are on the vacation home in the islands, that means twelve hours on the Lear jet, just to disable those lamps so that I can use the lamps at home again. Argh!

OK, so hopefully by now you’ve realized that everything above is complete fiction. There are no such lamps (that I’m aware of), my beach and island homes are owned by Marriott, the closest I’ve come to a Lear is flying one in X-Plane, and there’s no such company as WWoW. There is, however, a company named Apple Computer, who happen to provide something called the iTunes Store (iTS).

Since its launch, the store has been, oh, somewhat successful. I’ve participated in that success, to the tune of about $100 a year or so since its inception. As you know, music purchased from the iTS is protected using FairPlay. iTS-purchased songs can be played on any iPod, and on up to five authorized computers. And therein lies the rub, and the reason for this rant—the definition and management of those five authorized “computers.”

What is being authorized?

You see, it’s not really a computer that you’re authorizing. It’s a combination of the computer’s hardware (RAM, hard drives, etc.) and its operating system. Consider our household, which presently holds five Macs—three Intel boxes (mini, Mac Pro, and MacBook Pro) and two PowerPC machines (12” PowerBook and Dual G5). If I just authorize all five, I should be good to go, right? Well, not exactly.

If I try to use iTunes in Windows via Parallels Desktop on one of the Intel Macs to listen to my purchases, I’m told that the machine isn’t authorized to listen to the songs. But if I switch over to iTunes in OS X on the same machine, it plays the songs just fine, because that “machine” is authorized. The same problem crops up when running Windows via Boot Camp. I have issues even within OS X on both the PowerPC and Intel machines, because I keep a few versions of OS X installed (10.3, two copies of 10.4, and a legal seed of 10.5 on the Mac Pro and Dual G5, for instance). When I boot into 10.5, the machine doesn’t think it’s authorized, even though it is. (I don’t recall if this is a problem when booting back into 10.3 or not, as I do that very rarely nowadays.)

If I count up all the various versions of Windows and OS X I have installed around the house, there are something like 15 “machines” here that I’d need to authorize to have full access to my music—and that number could grow, any time I install a new image of Windows XP or Windows 2000. So even though I have five physical machines, which should be perfectly legal under the wording of the iTS authorization limit, I find myself in the situation where I cannot authorize all five of those machines in all of their various operating modes.

Management of authorizations

Given that the five “machine” limit is unlikely to be increased, if I want to listen to my purchased music from any Mac in the house, I need to jump through a lot of hoops—disable authorization on one machine, enable on another, repeat ad nauseam. True enough, toggling the authorization is simple. Just launch iTunes and choose Store -> Deauthorize Computer or Authorize Computer as need be.

Well, it’s simple enough in theory. In practice, it’s still simple, but can be very time consuming. Consider one of the Intel Macs, recently booted via Boot Camp into Windows. Once in Windows, iTunes was used and purchased music playback was authorized. Since then, though, the Mac has been rebooted back into OS X. To disable the authorized status of the machine, I need to shut down OS X, reboot into Windows, launch iTunes, disable the authorization, shut down, boot into OS X, and then authorize the “new” machine. Doable, but given the number of different “machines” iTunes believes I have, it’d be quite the challenge to keep everything straight… “Let’s see, which OS and machine was I using the other day when I authorized iTunes playback?”

If I ever lose track of my authorizations, which is a very real possibility in this scenario, I have to go to every machine, boot it into each operating system installed on that machine, and check iTunes’ authorization status. I’d probably then want to put that info into a spreadsheet or something, just so that I would always know where my five authorizations are being used. If I get hopelessly confused, Apple will let me reset my five authorizations—but only once a year!

My final complaint with the five machine limit is that Apple does absolutely nothing to help us manage our authorizations. Want to know if a given machine is authorized? As with my fictitious lamps, you have to actually go to that machine to answer the question. But it’s actually a bit worse than the lamps, because there’s no easy way to just view the authorization status of the machine. Instead, you have to run iTunes and attempt to play a protected song. If the machine is authorized, it will start playing the song; if it’s not (and you haven’t used up all five of your authorizations), you’ll see the authorization dialog box. Ugh, what a pain.

The way it should be

As much as I’d like to see the five machine limit increased, I don’t think Apple’s partners in the music business will let that happen. Instead, I think two changes would make the entire system much more reasonable in today’s multi-machine, multi-OS environment:

  1. The five machine authorization limit should be just that—a machine limit, not a machine and OS-in-use limit. All five of my Macs should be capable of playing my protected content, regardless of which OS they happen to be running at that moment. This would go a long way to solving my frustrations with the current setup.

    I realize that this would probably involve some sort of net connection from within iTunes to confirm the machine’s authorization status, but I’d be willing to live with that restriction—if I’m in an airplane, I’m probably listening to my iPod anyway. Perhaps there’s a way to do this without resorting to using the net, but I’ll leave that up to Apple to solve.

  2. Give us a real authorization management tool. In the iTS today, all you can see is a one-sentence summary of your authorization status: “5 machines are authorized to play music purchased with this account.” In the place of that nearly useless summary, how about a nice table showing each authorized machine, with radio buttons that would allow us to easily enable or disable authorizations on a machine by machine basis?

    When you first register a machine as authorized, it gets added to the list. If at some point you sell that machine and forget to remove its authorization first, you could come back to this interface and simply do so there. A tool like this would also help if Apple cannot allow us true machine authorizations. I could envision the list showing something like “Mac Pro — Boot Camp — Windows XP” and “Mac Pro — virtual OS — Windows 2000” as entries in the list, again with radio buttons to make it easy to toggle the authorization status of a given machine. Not having to reboot each OS on each machine just to toggle its authorization status would be a huge timesaver.

    With a true management tool like this, you also wouldn’t be stuck if you happened to leave the laptop at the beach house and you’d used up your five machine limit. Instead, you could remotely disable its authorization (the laptop would check its status next time it was powered up) from any Mac.

Overall, I love the iTS; it’s helped me find a lot of older music I never would’ve gotten around to purchasing, and has made it easy to add new stuff I hear on the radio to my collection. But the five machine limit, and the tools we’re given to manage that limit, simply aren’t realistic for today’s computing environment. I know this is probably as much the responsibility of the music industry as it is of Apple, but the two groups need to work together to give the consumers more options in this matter. Of course, I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen, given the music industry’s historical lack of interest in customer-friendly business practices.

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