Obscured by clouds: how to lose your audiobooks

John Constable, Sky Study, Hamstead Heath (1821), oil, other details not known, Royal Academy of Arts, London. WikiArt.

Great landscape painters like Constable took great pains to paint skies right. The British called it ‘skying’ – rattling off sketches of cloudscapes as they evolve. Constable’s are so marvellous that they are featured in two books, JE Thornes’ John Constable’s Skies: a Fusion of Art and Science, and F Bancroft’s Constable’s Skies.

Whatever medium I am using, I love painting skies, and love skying. But I have to remind myself (sometimes repeatedly) whether I am using transparent water-based media, such as watercolours, or opaque media such as oils. For in the former, you actually paint the negative, that is the sky, and leave the white areas of cloud relatively unscathed, unless you cop out with a tube of titanium white.

There are tricks and traps with computing Clouds too, such as the subtle but very important differences between iTunes in the Cloud, and iCloud Backup.

This would all become horribly clear if you were to purchase an audiobook from the iTunes Store, download it to your iPhone, and then – without syncing the iPhone or making any other backup – remove it from your iPhone. You would discover that you cannot download the audiobook again.

Apple does actually tell you this, somewhere buried deep in the fine print which we all acknowledge without reading, each time it is updated. It is spelled out more obviously in a more obscure but vital place: the official explanation as to how to restore previously purchased products from the iTunes Store, here. Note that specific version applies to the UK; there is another for the US, and I expect different versions for each of the local iTunes Stores.

Scroll down to Audiobooks (or Ringtones, as they are effectively similar) and you will see:
“If you made a backup of these items on your Mac or PC, you can sync the items to your iOS device. You can’t download these items again from iTunes in the Cloud.”

So what’s wrong with iTunes in the Cloud?

There are two different ways that you can store iTunes purchases in the Cloud. The completely free and simpler way is to enable iTunes in the Cloud as a service, but that only stores links or authorisations to content purchased from the iTunes Store. In the case of most other content, as the rest of that Apple article explains, you can use those links to obtain that content again.

If you back up to iCloud, then the files that you back up occupy space, which you pay for. If you wanted to be really ingenious, then you might sync your iPhone to your Mac, and then just back up the iPhone backup to your iCloud backup. Or you could just leave it to Time Machine to back up the iPhone backup locally. But you have to back that iPhone up.

This anomaly in the behaviour of audiobooks is probably because they are licensed from Audible, whilst Apple has fuller control over other content offered in the iTunes Store. However it leaves users in the dark until one day they come to replace an audiobook which they presumed was held for them by iTunes in the Cloud, only to find that it isn’t.

Apple: this policy is anomalous and sucks. Please protect your customers better, and fix it.

This issue first became apparent in a series of tweets between @DarrenMcNaney and @chrisphin: many thanks to them both for drawing attention to it, and Apple’s curiously inconsistent policy.