Apple Adds Confusion to Ringtone Purchases

With iTunes 9 and iPhone OS 3.1, Apple made major changes in how you purchase and create ringtones from the iTunes Store. Apple also went out of its way to obscure how some of these rules have changed. As such, it took me awhile to figure it all out.

Admittedly, I have never used the iTunes Store ringtone feature much, as I prefer to create my own ringtones with other software. And now that you get DRM-free songs from the iTunes Store, the ability to independently create your own ringtones is practically unlimited. Still, as I am updating my iPhone book, I wanted to be sure that I understood exactly how ringtone purchasing worked. What I found was a bit surprising and a bit disappointing.

Download ringtones from your iPhone: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The biggest change in ringtone purchasing is one that Apple did widely publicize: you can now download ringtones wirelessly directly to your iPhone. You do this by tapping the new Ringtones icon in the iTunes Store app. The exact procedure is briefly covered in this Apple article.

Just as with the Music section of the iTunes app, the Ringtones section only shows a small subset of the total number of ringtones available. To find out for sure if a desired song is available as a ringtone or not, you need to do a Search. If any ringtones are available that match your search term, a Ringtone section will appear in the results. I did this for Taylor Swift, for example, and found 40 ringtones just of her music.

Once you purchase a ringtone, it appears in a Purchased section of the list in Settings > Sound > Ringtone on your iPhone. When you next sync your iPhone to your Mac, purchased ringtones copy to your iTunes Library. At the same time, in a bit of an odd quirk, the separate Purchased ringtones section on the iPhone vanishes; the ringtones previously listed there are now moved to the Custom section (at least that’s what happened to me).

Compared to how you purchased and created ringtones in iTunes on your Mac, there are a few further differences:

From iTunes, you could purchase a ringtone for $.99 cents. Each ringtone on your iPhone cost $1.29. However, on your Mac, you had to first purchase the entire song before you could create a ringtone from it. On your iPhone, you purchase the ringtone directly, potentially saving you money if you don’t want the entire song.

Ringtones purchased from your iPhone are not editable. They are 30 second segments of the song, as pre-selected by Apple. With the ringtone option in iTunes on your Mac, you could edit and choose exactly what portion of a song you wanted as the ringtone.

Buy ringtones from iTunes Store on your Mac: Gone in Sixty Seconds

Despite all the changes just described, when I first heard about the option to download ringtones directly on my iPhone, I thought: “Great. Now there are two ways to get ringtones. Choice is always nice.”

But I was wrong. Or at least partly wrong. Apple giveth and Apple taketh away. Prior to iTunes 9, ringtone eligible songs in the iTunes Store had a bell icon in the Store’s Ringtone column. However, this bell/ringtone column is completely gone from Store listings in iTunes 9. You can still see the column if you are running iTunes 8, but the column is now always empty, so it might as well be gone.

Despite the absence of the bell icons, you can still purchase eligible songs from the iTunes Store and convert them into ringtones (but apparently only if you live in the U.S.). As confirmed in this Apple article, you do this by highlighting a purchased song in your iTunes Library and selecting Store > Create Ringtone. If the song is an eligible song, the ringtone editor appears. If not, you get an error message.

How do you know if a song is eligible or not? Here’s where things really begin to go off the rails. Because the bell icons are gone from the Store, you have no way of knowing in advance of purchasing a song, whether the song is ringtone-eligible or not. You just have to guess and hope. I checked with Apple on this point, just to be sure, and they confirmed this is so. To me, this makes the whole feature next to useless, which I suspect is Apple’s intent.

For songs you’ve purchased, you can still display the Ringtone column in your iTunes Library, allowing you to check for bell icons and see which songs are eligible. But even here, Apple goes out of its way make life difficult. When you first launch iTunes 9, even if you had the Ringtone column displayed in iTunes 8, the column will no longer appear. To get it back, you need to return to View > View Options and enable the Ringtone checkbox. Surprisingly, the display of the Ringtone column is automatically turned off again — every time you quit and relaunch iTunes! Apparently, Apple is doing its best to get rid of this feature without quite doing so. I expect even this minimal support to disappear eventually.

Bottom line

There’s an understandable logic to Apple’s decision to eliminate the purchasing and editing of ringtones from the iTunes Store on your Mac. Now that all music in the iTune Store is DRM-free, you can use GarageBand (or a utility such as Ringtone Studio) to create ringtones from any song in the Store. You no longer need the direct editing option in iTunes. For those who don’t want to be bothered with learning how to edit a ringtone, the new iPhone OS 3.1 ringtone method is about as simple and painless as possible.

What is less understandable is the decision not to have the new ringtone option available on both the iPhone and the Mac. Why only on the iPhone? Perhaps Apple felt that, because ringtones are only relevant to iPhone owners and most iTunes users do not yet own an iPhone, it would make more sense for the option to appear only where it can actually be used. Okay, I can buy that.

What I can’t understand or support is Apple’s decision to overhaul this feature without providing sufficient documentation. In particular, the disappearance of the bell icons from the iTunes Store, their near disappearance from iTunes Libraries, and the implications of all of this, are not covered in any Apple documents I could find.

Unfortunately, this is not the only recent instance where a lack of documentation has led to confusion. A similar situation exists with iPhone OS 3.1’s new anti-phishing feature. I can only hope this does not become a trend.