Sock(-puppet)ing it to Apple’s iPhone App Store

Sometimes Apple is not to blame for everything, though I would like to think there is a way they can put a sock in this problem.

Gagan Biyani writing for MobileCrunch reports on the latest problem to hit Apple’s iPhone App Store: completely fake reviews planted there by PR firms.

Reverb Communications is a PR firm retained by some of the companies which sell iPhone applications in the App Store. The firm touts “first party” and “personal” relationships with Apple. Those claims, of course, are spun so much, most of us mere mortals that don’t work in PR risk nausea from the resulting dizziness embodied therein. Because what Reverb actually means is that they have a bunch of fake identities that can log into the App Store and post fake reviews. Yeah, that’s not exactly what comes to mind when I hear of “first party” and “personal” relationships.

How did we finally find out that Reverb lacks scruples and decency? Through an anonymous developer referred to in the article as only “Developer Y” (assumably because “Publisher X” had just been used in the preceding paragraph). From a document sent from Reverb to Developer Y (quoted in the original article):

Reverb employs a small team of interns who are focused on managing online message boards, writing influential game reviews, and keeping a gauge on the online communities. Reverb uses the interns as a sounding board to understand the new mediums where consumers are learning about products, hearing about hot new games and listen to the thoughts of our targeted audience. Reverb will use these interns on Developer Y products to post game reviews (written by Reverb staff members) ensuring the majority of the reviews will have the key messaging and talking points developed by the Reverb PR/marketing team.

But it gets even better. Reverb actually works with Apple, having done at least one TV commercial for them. Further, at least one of Reverb’s referrals actually came from an Apple employee.

Reverb’s official statement when confronted with this? Hang on tight, because the Tilt-a-Whirl is starting up again. Doug Kennedy wrote back to MobileCrunch in essence fingering a “disgruntled former employee who is violating his confidentiality agreement.”

I’m pretty sure confidentiality agreements don’t cover illegal activity, and what Reverb is doing here at least borders on fraud. At the very least it’s patently devoid of any scruples, honesty, and ethics. And PR firms and the people that work for them wonder why they are sometimes viewed as less trustworthy.

Shame on Reverb. If you work in PR, please don’t do what they did. The world, and the reputation of your profession, will be much better off.

Games book publishers still play

Josh Catone writing for Mashable reports on the not-too-surprising pitfalls of digital textbooks and why they are not ready for prime-time for many students. The primary focus of the article appears to be college students where textbooks are purchased. (If I have any readers still in high school out there, yes, it’s true, senior year of high school is the last time you’ll get to borrow your textbooks for free.)

Indeed, very predictable it is that the third reason (of three) is “questions of ownership.” Cited are DRM (digital restrictions management) limiting time of use to 180 days in one example, after which the books are automatically deleted. The example cited is a biology textbook available via both hard copy and electronic textbook distributor CourseSmart. (The article refers to CourseSmart as a publisher, but it appears this is technically incorrect.) The hard copy version is available for US$50 used, US$80 new; CourseSmart charges US$70 for what is in effect a 180 day rental. Given the cost, and that this is never a concern with printed textbooks, this is simply unacceptable. US$70 for a non-DRM copy is more in line with what I’d consider fair. If Pearson (the publishing) company insisted upon a silly, odious, and obnoxious 180-day time limit, I honestly think US$20 is more realistic. Yes, one-fourth the cost of the print version.

The lack of standardization doesn’t help either, which in turn highlights just how bad of an idea DRM really is, as that is a large part of the reason for lack of standardization. It’s similar to the reason Microsoft’s “PlaysForSure” campaign looked pretty dumb when Microsoft then came out with the Zune, in essence saying “Thanks, hardware manufacturers, for supporting our patented Windows Media format and making it easy for PCs running Windows to use your players, we like you so much that we’re going to say, here’s our Zune, and here’s our middle finger.”

Most digital audio players prior to Apple’s iPod, Microsoft’s Zune, etc. used a standard, if patent-encumbered, format called MPEG Layer III Audio or MP3. Most understood Windows Media (WMA/WMV) files alongside MP3, but MP3 was still a fairly reliable “lowest common denominator” format.

In the world of digital print publishing, despite the clear winner being Adobe’s PDF format (which is as far as I know not patent encumbered, or the patents thus covering it have been made available under a royalty free license), many e-book readers do not support plain PDF, or do so in a manner that’s obnoxious and clumsy compared to grabbing the DRM-infested version.

It seems like print’s slow transition to digital may be the last frontier for DRM elimination. College textbooks are just the tip of the iceberg, though I think students not being able to sell their books at the end of a semester anymore will be quite annoyed. Or, they may just shell out the money again for what’s in reality an expensive rental. Hopefully, the kids smart enough to get into college will be smart enough to see the shell game being played before them.