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Monday, October 01, 2007

Darth Apple and the iPhone: The Dark Side Revealed?

"If you only knew the power of the Dark Side!"
-- Darth Vader (Dum dum dum ... dum dee dum ... dum dee dum)
[ Star Wars Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) ]


Greetings. I invoke "Star Wars" analogies at my considerable peril, but the current blowup (some are indeed calling it a "war") over the iPhone does bring elements of the films' saga to mind.

In Star Wars we had evil masquerading as good, evil that became good, and good that became evil. We had lowly Ewoks (let's call them "consumers") who defeated a would-be control-freak galactic empire (let's call that "Apple"). Now admittedly, the Ewoks are very nearly my least favorite Star Wars characters, only surpassed on that score by Jar Jar Binks, but we'll let that slide for now.

Other than the obvious "good triumphs over evil" stance of Star Wars, a key lesson of the films is that it's not always that easy to tell the difference between your friends and those who would exploit you, one way or another.

Apple has long been the darling of the "creative" community broadly defined, existing in the glow of being the anti-Microsoft, despite an extremely limited range of hardware platforms compared with the vast array traditionally available for Microsoft Operating Systems.

But Microsoft has (mostly due to its own actions over the years) taken on the mantle of the evil empire, while Apple -- especially since Steve Jobs returned to lead the company, bringing with him an air of widely admired "coolness" -- has been perceived as taking the moral high ground.

But now Apple seems eager to do battle with some of its strongest adherents, by trying to retroactively lock down the iPhone platform with their own technological version of the Death Star, wiping out third party applications and in some cases bricking the phones.
It's enough to give one considerable pause and to question some basic assumptions.

On my belt is a Windows Mobile PDA phone. It cost less than the iPhone and unlike the iPhone was partly subsidized by Cingular (now AT&T). It runs a vast array of third party commercial and public domain applications -- all the relatively basic stuff that iPhone users say are missing from their phones, plus an incredibly wide range more besides.

By and large, the only people who brick Windows Mobile phones are ones who rewrite the OS firmware, which given the wide applications availability for these phones is really unnecessary except for the very hardest of hard-core hackers. To my knowledge, neither the phone's manufacturer nor the carrier have ever tried to erase, block, or otherwise tamper with these phones. Third party applications support are one of their main selling points, and we don't hear complaints from the carriers that these applications are somehow damaging their networks.

Apple's attitude is, by and large, "If you do stuff to your phone that we don't anoint as canon, and then it so happens that updates we send to your phone later f*** you up, don't complain to us."

This is, from a legal standpoint -- given the verbiage of the complex licenses associated with such products -- probably legitimate, at least in court.

But from a consumer standpoint, seeing this sort of attitude from the smiling face of Apple must come as something of a shock to many Apple fans, some of whom might be expecting to see Steve Jobs show up wearing a black cape at his next product announcement.

What's really going on is something that goes far beyond Apple.
Technology companies are rapidly extending their complicated intellectual property agreements into the consumer devices that we buy and depend upon. In essence, we're more and more really renting these products, not actually buying them, since legally there are all sorts of restrictions on what we can do with these modern wonders, and often ways that they can be turned into useless junk by their makers if we don't play by their rules.

My sense is that intrusive intellectual property and Digital Rights Management are rapidly approaching a serious tipping point where consumer unwillingness to "just go along" with these restrictions could reach a fever pitch very suddenly.

Eventually, people get tired of being told what they can or can't do with electronic devices that they own, especially when faced with what seem to be unreasonable restrictions. This applies whether we're talking about the iPhone, DVD recorders that refuse to record since the local cable company has arbitrarily tagged even basic channels as copy protected, or to "self-destructing" next-generation DVDs when piracy is even suspected -- along with lots of other examples now and coming down the pipe very soon.

Like the Ewoks who were viewed as primitive beasts by the Star Wars Empire, consumers may not have the poison pill firmware updating power of the "Death Star" -- but they do have some items even more powerful at their disposal -- their wallets and their votes.

If they continue pushing so hard to ram these restrictive products and licenses into the consumer marketplace, many manufacturers, the telecom industry, and the entertainment giants alike may discover that their Ewoks aren't buying, and are instead voting for politicians with a more equitable view of how "the galaxy" should be run.

Of course the plot isn't finished -- in some ways it's only just begun. We might still see script twists that are impossible to anticipate, and the cast of characters, both good and evil, may yet change and surprise us all.

But consumers will always be the ultimate force to bring balance to these matters, if they choose to use that power wisely.

Let the force be ... oh, you know.

--Lauren--
Lauren Weinstein
lauren@vortex.com or lauren@pfir.org
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