Awareness for Etymotic, Part One: Registration and Installation

Concept: 0 out of 5
Execution: 0 out of 5
Yeah, but: I hope getting there isn't half the fun.

The Long Version: As a reviewer, there's a special place in my heart for companies and products that really piss me off. They have reviews that practically write themselves – and Etymotic, with their handling of Essency's "AWARENESS!® for Etymotic" iOS App, has joined this select group.

I very recently bought a pair of Etymotic's HF3 earphones, which is bundled with the downloadable "AWARENESS!® for Etymotic" iOS program by the UK developer Essency. Essentially, "AWARENESS!®" is a clever-sounding program that uses the built-in mic to monitor and optionally transmit ambient sounds. This isn't a review of the app, although that's coming up soon; a review of the earphones themselves may also eventually follow as well. For now I'm just looking at the post-purchase experience: going from the earphones' retail box to the point where the "AWARENESS!®" application is up and running.

There is also a paid "AWARENESS!®PRO" version that unlocks a few additional features. The upgrade process is straightforward, but I won't bother dealing with the anti-customer stupidity of charging $15 in the iTunes Store versus the $5 cost of upgrading through the application. I'll save that for part two.

"AWARENESS!® for Etymotic" requires an account that's created via the Etymotic website. It asks for an amazing amount of personal information, including an email address, phone number, and full mailing address. If something is omitted, don't expect it to be easy to figure out what it is – I'm hardly an idiot when it comes to this internet thing, and I lost track of the number of times I bumped into some unmarked mandatory field or missed a requirement. And incidentally, you also need to type in the UPC and the secret code that's printed on the top of the box. Awesome.

And the purpose of asking for all of this information is made perfectly clear: to create the account to register the product to be able to use the app, the lucky customer must select at least one of Ety's marketing "tell me more" checkboxes. And no, "none of the above" is not an option. Not only is that repugnantly disrespectful, I'll even bet that it's illegal in many jurisdictions.

Once you've pressed "submit" – to the invasion of privacy and blatant disregard of your wishes – you earn the ability to log in to their "free" app.

Download the app, click to log in, and it asks for a user name and password. Hold on – the password is what I laboriously created online, but there was no mention of what the user name will be. Is it my full name, which was a mandatory field? Perhaps it's the required e-mail address? Could it be something randomly generated and buried in the click-this-link verification email? I love guessing games.

I type something in and get an error message: unable to connect to network. Check your internet connection. That's not unreasonable; two bars are showing on my iPhone 4S, but I'm on the Rogers Wireless network in downtown Toronto, so failure is always an option. I move to a place with better reception and type in my first guess again. Same 'bad network' result. Now I have to consider that "AWARENESS!®" could just be an idiotic program, so I ignore the second warning and take another guess at what my user name might be. Third time lucky: now it thinks that the Internet connection is just fine and I'm in.

And no, I'm not going to spoil the surprise by saying what worked.

I'm sure someone will helpfully point out that I don't need to use the app, and that I could choose to ignore it and continue to exist in anonymity. If I did that then I would still resent Etymotic for having the audacity to ask such impertinent questions as a condition of deriving the advertised benefits of their product, but I would also feel like I'm being cheated out of some features that they promote as "included with purchase" simply because I won't accept their blatantly unreasonable terms. That's not an improvement.

What's more, the "AWARENESS!®" app is important enough to Etymotic that they heavily promote it. They market isolation as a unique product advantage for their earphones, which makes the features of the app seem useful and appealing: it's in their interest for me to want it, associate it with them, and like it. It's absolutely not in their interest for me to be so dissatisfied with the process that I investigate further and discover that Essency also markets a generic version that makes Etymotic's vaunted isolation seem much less remarkable, and come away feeling cheapened and deceived.

It takes an unconscionable amount of hubris for companies like Essency and Etymotic to demand personal information in this post-LulzSec era. Linkedin, eHarmony, and Last.fm all fell to hackers in the time that it took me to write this, but I'm supposed to trust that Essency's infrastructure and information is properly secured? Seriously? The etymotic.com/awareness/register page isn't even encrypted.

Do you follow the internet's best practices and use a unique and complex password for every little pissant product registration page? I certainly don't, and although I do try to limit the damage that can be done, it seems inevitable that these small fish are going to get fried.

I have to ask: is the risk to Etymotic and Essency of non-Etymotic-owners using the limited functions of the free app – or purchasing the $5 Etymotic version instead of the functionally identical $7 unbranded edition – so great that it's worth the liability and effort of having the registration process at all, let alone one so onerously-yet-ineffectually locked down? Is having my email address really worth what it costs?

While I'm yet to form an opinion of the application itself, I do wish that I had found the white-label version rather than following Etymotic's links. It seems to skip the registration step, and the extra couple of bucks seems like a small price to pay for avoiding all of this nonsense.

Even assuming that there is a valid reason for Etymotic and/or Essency to restrict the app via product registration, there's still no excuse for the information that they collect or the platform that they do it with. "AWARENESS!®" is already capable of accepting and confirming login information – asking instead for the UPC and box code, and skipping all of the privacy invasions and marketing hoop-jumping, would be just as (in)effective at keeping the undesirables out. Instead they choose to inflict this anti-customer bullshit on people who either already have or would otherwise like to give them money.

Etymotic, a company with a sterling reputation for sound, thinks that getting my information is so important that they're willing to make me hate them. And to what end? When I do receive their mandatory marketing material I guarantee that all it will do is remind me how much I resent them right now.

Today my earphones are shiny and new. I took the considerable effort to seek out this brand and model, and spent a big chunk of money to own them. This should be the peak of my post-purchase happiness. Instead this terrible software tie-in and registration has me writing a 1200-word rant about just how bad the experience was.

What a massive amount of hassle and effort for such a lousy reward.

last updated 7 june 2012


  1. Hi Matthew.

    9 months on and Etymotic has not changed a thing! How can they make something that should be so simple so hard. Engineers???
    I bought the earphones for my son who has ASD and sensory processing issues especially because of the awareness app. I know I will get there but very frustrating.

  2. Hi;

    Thanks for your comment. I'm simultaneously frustrated that the situation hasn't improved and pleased that someone else out there agrees that this is harder than it should be.

    I do hope that the app works for your son and does what you need it to. I've found that I don't really need the function that it serves, but with a little fiddling it does mostly work as described. Perhaps I'll give it another chance and write that follow-up review after all.


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