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Dear Apple, you need to treat multi-country iTunes users like first-class citizens

Dear Apple,

It's time you start treating multi-country iTunes users like first-class citizens.

Let me explain: I've had an iTunes account for almost a decade now. I opened it in the US in 2003 and have since bought thousands of songs, TV shows, movies, and apps. But also in that time I've moved from the United States to the United Kingdom. While I've been able to keep making my purchases through my US iTunes account (because I still have valid US-based credit cards), I needed to open a UK iTunes account in order to get some of the most popular UK apps, which are only available on the UK iTunes/App Store. These are apps like BBC's iPlayer, 4oD, ITV Player, iPlayer Radio, YouView (an app for managing your YouView DVR), apps for my UK bank and credit card accounts, apps for my UK utilities, apps for UK restaurants like Costa, and many, many more.

And though I hold these two valid country accounts, I need to constantly jump through hoops to use them, which takes away from the "it just works" mentality you imbue in your products. Specifically, here are the three big problems that arise out of iTunes' inability to handle multi-country accounts more easily:

1. App updates are a pain.

The beauty of iTunes and the App Store is that it tells you automatically when an app you have downloaded has an update. This, of course, is designed to help users keep up-to-date with the latest release of their apps so they have current bug fixes and new features -- so everything "just works."

However, when you have two valid multi-country iTunes Store accounts, you aren't usually notified when an app from the country store you are not logged in to has an update. Oh, sometimes you're notified like this:

Dear Apple, you need to treat multicountry iTunes users like firstclass citizens

This is what I sometimes see when I have an app update to a UK app when I'm logged into my US account. But that's not a complete notification. iTunes only tells me I have an app update but doesn't have the ability to display which update that is.

I call this iTunes' invisible alert feature. I've got app updates, but I have no idea which apps have updates. So how do I get these updates? Here are the steps I must complete to get updates for my already-downloaded apps:

  1. Go into the iTunes account settings of my US account (the one I'm usually logged in to because that's where I buy all my music and movies).
  2. Change all my billing info so I can access the UK store. That's entering credit card numbers, billing addresses, and phone numbers.
  3. Once the billing changes have been accepted, I'm allowed into the UK store. I then need to check for updates again, see which updates I have and download them. Then -- so I can continue to have access to all my songs, movies, and US app updates that I've purchased over the years -- I must:
  4. Go into my iTunes account settings of my UK account.
  5. Change all my billing info so I can access the US store. That's entering credit card numbers, billing addresses, and phone numbers.
  6. Once the billing changes have been accepted, I'm allowed into the US store.

By the way, I say above that iTunes sometimes displays invisible app update notifications because, well, it's only sometimes. Many times I will log in to my UK account and find I have half a dozen UK app updates that iTunes didn't even give me invisible warnings about.

The whole process is time consuming and overly complicated to say the least. But here are some ways to fix this:

  • Let iTunes users with multi-country accounts save all their billing info for all countries in their iTunes Store settings. This way users would be able to access multiple country stores all at once -- just by switching between the stores without having to enter their billing info each time. Or...
  • Allow an app to be updated in iTunes that has been downloaded with the same user account no matter what country store it's from. This wouldn't be as convenient as option #1 (as you would still need to change billing information to shop at another country's store) but it would at least ensure users had access to app updates for country-specific apps they've already downloaded. Or...
  • Let us download updates for apps that are on our iOS devices, because those are the ones we obviously use most and aren't as important as country-specific apps we store in our iTunes library but not on our iPhones and iPads.

2. Multi-country iTunes users aren't able to use iTunes Match.

I love iTunes Match. Or, I loved it for the two months I was allowed to use it. See, I signed up for it the day it was available in the US. But two months later I moved back to the UK and needed to access my UK iTunes store so I could start downloading some UK-specific apps. The problem is since I was a US iTunes Match user, I wasn't allowed to switch between country-specific stores any longer.

That's right. If you're an iTunes Match user in one country, you are not allowed to switch to another country's store -- even if you had an existing account in that store.

So in order to download UK-specific apps, I needed to call up your help line and cancel my iTunes Match account. That really happened. I needed to cancel this awesome service from you just so I could go back to my UK account and download apps. And even after I canceled, I was still locked out of my UK account for 30 days.

I get that iTunes Match has regional licensing deals, but I don't think the right way to go about it is to limit what your most ardent users can do once they subscribe to your service. At the very least, let us have access to the App Store, which has no connection to iTunes Match.

In hopes of being able to have access to the service and use both my iTunes country-specific stores, when iTunes Match was made available in the UK I called up Apple and even offered to join the services in the US and the UK (even though I never buy music from my UK iTunes account) but was told that is not possible.

So no iTunes Match for me.

3. Gift cards lock you out too.

What's more frustrating than iTunes Match locking you out of changing stores is iTunes gift cards locking you out of changing stores.

I was recently given a US$100 iTunes gift card. I thought that was awesome because that would cover what I usually spend on iTunes purchases for about four months. Since it was a US gift card I entered it in my US iTunes account. The next day I saw that one of my most-used UK apps -- BBC iPlayer -- had a significant update so I went to my iTunes account settings to change my billing details so I could log into my UK account and download the update and guess what? I get the message below:

Dear Apple, you need to treat multicountry iTunes users like firstclass citizens

That's right, when you have any kind of balance in your iTunes account you are not allowed to change over to your valid other-country accounts. That means I can't access any app updates for any of my UK apps until I spend through my $100 credit and am allowed to switch stores again. And given that the credit is so large, unless I want to hurry up and spend the money on apps or media I really don't want, I need to wait until I've found relevant and useful stuff I want to buy from iTunes and get my balance down to $0 so I can update my UK apps. And that could take months.

Again, it's perfectly reasonable to restrict an iTunes balance to only one country-specific store. However, it's not reasonable to lock users out of other country stores where they hold an account just because they have a balance in one store. Because when you're locked out, not only can you not download new apps, your already purchased apps are barred for getting updates.

We aren't the largest block of users, but we matter too.

I understand that iTunes users with two or more country-specific accounts aren't the norm, or even close to being a majority of users -- but there are plenty of us out there. An easier way to receive app updates for us would be greatly appreciated and fall in line with Apple's famous "it just works" and ease-of-use ethos.

Hopefully you'll consider multi-country iTunes users as important as our single-country brethren. Until then, I've got $100 to blow through so I can have access to my app updates, so if you can suggest some good movies or music I might buy it would be appreciated.

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