James Franco, left, films a scene with Randall Park, the actor playing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for the movie 'The Interview' at Robson Square in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday November 29, 2013.
It's not hard to spot a conspicuous absence in the list of streaming services offering the Seth Rogen comedy The Interview Wednesday. Google Play is offering it. YouTube is offering it. Microsoft's Xbox Live is offering it. Sony set up a special website where you can stream it.
So where's iTunes?
Apple was actually Sony Pictures' first choice for a media partner to show the movie, according to The New York Times — so much so that Sony reportedly tried to get the White House to help convince the world's richest tech company to stream the movie. Apple wasn't interested, "at least not on a speedy timetable," the Times' unnamed sources said.
Why not? Why let all this free publicity and buzz go to any other platform, especially at a time when iTunes is struggling to stand out and redefine itself? Did Apple make a mistake? Naturally, the famously tight-lipped company wouldn't comment for this story, or for the Times', but anyone who's followed Apple for years can easily think of a few good reasons that fit its character.
1. It's too cautious
Apple is rarely first to market with any technology. Xerox had the mouse and the Graphical User Interface before the Macintosh. Apple cofounder Steve Jobs himself once freely admitted to me that he was incredibly late to the music game with iTunes. The iPod was nowhere near the first MP3 player. The big exception was the enormously innovative iPhone, and its feature set was quickly overtaken by Android phones. The Apple Watch will be as late to the smartwatch space in 2015 as iTunes was to the music player space in 2001.
None of that matters. Apple was never about making anything first; it is about making technology — to use CEO Tim Cook's favorite word —better. Apple wants to be your perfect smartphone, your perfect tablet, your perfect computer.
That's all well and good, but it has bred a culture of caution and slow iteration. Apple rarely acted swiftly before Cook; in not launching a product in a new category in his first four years as CEO, Cook has doubled down on that strategy.
"Not on a speedy timetable" is about all you need to know — not just about Apple's response to The Interview, but its general approach to business. After all, you don't change a corporate ethos when it made you rich beyond the dreams of avarice in the space of a decade.
2. It's too obsessed with quality, especially on iTunes
Let's face it: Although its release represents freedom and the First Amendment and all that good stuff, The Interview has been one big critical "meh." The film currently rates a less-than-fresh 54% on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie-reviews aggregator. Here are some reviewers' blurbs you won't see on posters: "Remarkably dismal!" "two hours of hit-and-miss erection jokes!" "About as funny as a Communist food shortage!"
If audiences see it that way, Apple may well have reasoned, it's really not a good buy for the iTunes brand — especially not if it would be many mainstream users' first experience of the service.
Think of all those thousands of moms and dads unwrapping their first Apple TV under the Christmas tree Thursday. They plug it in, and fire up the iTunes movies app. Hey, there's that controversial film everyone's talking about! It's a comedy, right? Well, that could be fun for Christmas with the whole family.
Two hours, many dick jokes and one horrific slow-motion immolation of a dictator later, that same family may not be feeling quite so Christmassy — or so well-disposed toward iTunes for promoting it.
Google Play may need the attention (it's certainly getting a lot of play out of presenting the streaming as a plus for free speech). YouTube needed to let users know they could buy streaming on the service, which isn't something for which the platform is known. Similarly, Microsoft would love to have the Xbox more closely associated with other media than just games.
But iTunes, if anything, is too well-known, the brand dragged down by its notoriously bloated desktop software and hard-to-manage app interface. Apple is in the midst of a massive iTunes rethink after the Beats purchase. If The Interview were a work of art on the level of The Great Dictator, Apple might think differently about it.
But the film evidently isn't, and Apple may be banking on us realizing that fact, once the warm glow of celebrating our First Amendment freedom has faded.
3. It's too obsessed with security
Apple isn't just overly keen on protecting your Mac for you (to the point where the company just pushed out its first ever automatic security update to fix a crucial flaw on Mac OS X). It isn't just maniacally obsessed with secrecy about its products. Everything about the Cupertino, California, company — from its research and development to its public relations — is on permanent lockdown.
When two product announcements were accidentally leaked in advance of the Apple Watch keynote this fall, software vice-president and noted class clown Craig Federighi unveiled a short video featuring two Apple employees having to do a complicated hip-hop handshake before they could badge themselves through a door.
Put that in the "It's funny because it's true" category of inside jokes. Reporters are familiar with the little demo room at One Infinite Loop that's right inside the front door of one of the buildings — so we don't even have to go past reception for product demos that are designed to reveal no new information.
No doubt Apple IT thought it could bat away any potential retaliatory hacking, whether from North Korea or elsewhere. Sony Pictures (with its password files sent in plain text) they ain't. But why take the risk? Jobs once called San Jose police on journalists who came into possession of a single lost iPhone 4 prototype. Could you imagine the response if hackers got hold of Tim Cook's email?
Given how much a product like the Apple Watch thrives on secrecy and the building of pre-launch anticipation, there are literally billions of dollars worth of sensitive information in a single inbox at Infinite Loop. One hacked password might not bring down the company, but it could wipe an awful lot of value off the newly resurgent Dow.
In short, there was a lot of potential downside to releasing The Interview for Apple, and little in the way of upside. Any lost revenue from a single movie release is a drop in the bucket for a company that has $150 billion in the bank. We're sure iTunes will feature The Interview eventually, once all the fuss has died down, Christmas has passed, and those Apple TVs have been well and truly unwrapped — and almost certainly in time for you to view it on your Apple Watch.
Tags: Apple, FILM, Tech, THE INTERVIEW