Apple, a six year old and a billing nightmare

The expression ‘even a six year old could do it’ is one that has been around the English language for generations. As you get older and, like some BillingViews executives, you become more and more baffled by new technology, this expression is normally joined by another – ‘there is never a six year old around when you need one.’ This is uttered by said people of a certain age when trying to install one piece of technology into another piece of technology, failing and getting angry about it. In very rare cases a six year old will happen along at this point. Then, with a world weary sigh, a swipe and a couple of  calm of clicks they will fix the problem.

Apple, it is fairly certain, does not like six year olds. Individually, Apple executives almost certainly have only the fondest feelings for six year olds of course, but corporately they have cost them millions. And tens of thousands of complaints. And billing is to blame.

What happens is the parent of the six year old enters a password to make an in-app purchase. What then happens is the phone rings, or someone comes to the door or the kettle boils or the potatoes boil over and the parent rushes to the door or the kitchen, depending on where the emergency is happening. Meanwhile our sneaky six year old, who has been observing the scene and waiting for a distraction, reaches for the abandoned iPad or iPhone and downloads a cool $32.5 million worth of apps.

Technically speaking there was more than one six year old involved in the heist.

What probably happened was that when Apple billing executives were discussing with Apple marketing executives the parameters of in-app purchases, the conversation went something like this:

“If we are going to make this really secure we need customers to enter their password every time they make a purchase.”

“You’re joking. If I am buying apps and I have to put my password in every time then I will get really annoyed. That is not acceptable. I wouldn’t do it. No.”

“Hmm, good point.”

At this point you have to imagine some billing and marketing executives staring intently at an iPad for several minutes – in silence.

“I know. Let’s put a time limit on it.”


After about 15 minutes discussion the executives come up with a time limit of 15 minutes before a customer needs to re-enter his password. The specification is passed to the billing team and implemented.

What they didn’t know was that there was a six year old listening in.

And so, a couple of years and tens of thousands of complaints later, the Federal Trade Commission tells Apple to refund millions of dollars to parents who said that Apple never told them about the 15 minutes that allowed their charming little six year olds to half inch millions of their hard earned (enough cockney rhyming slang – ed).

The Law of Unintended Consequences is at work here. By trying to make the customer experience as sleek and easy as possible, Apple, like other companies, opened a window, through which the six year old happily climbed and cost them a lot of money. Maybe that is why Apple has bought some fingerprinting technology – not to authenticate customers so much as to tell the difference between an adult finger print and a sticky six year old finger print.

The moral of the story is that there is never too much thinking to be done when defining the customer experience. When you do not want one, there will always be a six year old around.

* Any six year olds mentioned in this article are completely fictitious.

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About Alex Leslie 400 Articles
Alex was Founder and CEO of the Global Billing Association (GBA), a trade body focused on the communications sector. He is a sought after speaker and chairman at leading industry conferences, and is widely published in communications magazines around the world. Until it closed, he was Contributing Editor, OSS/BSS for Connected Planet.

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