Apple's lock-in: deal with it

We're still six months away from being able to see the iPhone up-close-and-personal, but the shockwaves continue to ripple outwards from the Stevenote in San Francisco.

Apple's drive into the huge global mobile phone market could make the Cupertino icon into a much more important company than it is today. When you think about it, Apple's current status rests on being a minor player in the global personal computer business, and the largest competitor in what's really a minor consumer electronics segment (digital audio players). But should Apple enjoy anything like the success its had with the iPod with mobile, connected devices, that would catapult Apple into a position of incredible power and influence.

Surely it's with this potential increase in Apple's power that people are taking a critical look at Apple's strategy as expressed in their iPhone. Randall Stross' op-ed in the New York Times is probably the most popular of the bunch, but the thoughts therein have been posted elsewhere.

Stross' complaint boils down to this: I can't do whatever I please with things I buy from Apple. Specifically:

  • I can't play the music I buy wherever I want

These are the “iHandcuffs” the Times' headline writing imps are referring to.

Others, like my friend Cory Doctorow, have taken up the lock-in banner and expanded the bill of charges to include:

  • I can't use this phone with whichever carrier I want
  • I can't install whatever applications I want on this thing

Serious complaints, all, but is Apple really being as sinister as Stross and Doctorow make it seem, or is this nothing more than garden-variety corporate maneuvering, the likes of which we have always had to contend with as customers? I say it's the latter, and I say we just deal with it.

Music, movies, and TV

It's easy to see how Apple's digital rights/restrictions management (DRM) technology, FairPlay, works to Apple's advantage by raising a barrier against customers switching to rival devices. All of the music, movies, and TV shows you buy from the iTunes Store are restricted through FairPlay (you can only play your stuff on a certain number of registered computers, for example). FairPlay only works, however, if computers and digital audio players have FairPlay software installed on them. Since Apple doesn't let other companies license FairPlay, the list of computer and device manufacturers that support the technology is pretty short: Apple.

As long as you buy tracks, movies, and shows from the iTunes Store, you're pretty much restricted to playing it on Apple's hardware or software (you can, of course, play anything you buy from the Store in iTunes running on Windows). That's lock-in designed to make you think twice about buying your next digital audio player from Microsoft or SanDisk. On the other hand, if your media library is FairPlay-free, this isn't a problem.

As Stross points out, you can buy your music online as an unprotected MP3 from eMusic. Since the major labels don't offer may downloads in unrestricted formats yet, you (or someone employed by UPS, FedEx, DHL, or the USPS) will have to continue lugging your content home on aluminum discs, but that's the price you currently have to pay for purer-than-Caesar's-wife legal digital music from the likes of EMI, Universal, Sony BMG, or Warners. Of course, there are ways of obtaining restriction-free major label content that you might not want to mention the next time you have drinks with Doug Morris.

As for movies and TV shows, there aren't any officially-sanctioned sources for major studio or network downloads in unrestricted formats. On the one hand, you can say that Apple's locking you in when you buy a season's-worth of “Weeds” from the iTunes Store. If you want to switch from the iPod to something else, you'll have to leave Mary-Louise Parker (and your $20) behind. On the other hand, what's the alternative? Unlike the digital music business, there isn't an abundance of popular yet independent video content on the 'net yet, but no doubt the supply will emerge.

Some argue that no company should be able to place mutable restrictions on the content or software you buy, and that you should enjoy the same rights of fair use and first sale that one does with analog content. I mostly agree. Where I get off the bus is when the argument becomes that openness (freedom from DRM) should be mandated. If you buy the argument that DRM is a risk borne by the customer, then don't buy DRMed content.

Most non-DRMed stuff you can download or convert yourself plays on your Mac via iTunes, and plays on your iPod. MP3, unprotected AAC, or MPEG-4 video is an investment in your rights, and guarantees portability. The alternatives are plain, and the choice is yours—buy from Apple's iTunes Store and risk potential lock-in, or find your music, movies, and TV shows elsewhere. iTunes, which is the local hub for synchronizing content to your iPod (and let's assume that include the iPod that's tucked into your nifty new iPhone) supports non-DRM content in many formats already. All Apple's doing with the iTunes Store is making it very, very convenient to load up on FairPlay-restricted media, but they're certainly not making it mandatory. There's nothing about the iPhone that demands you invest in DRM-restricted content.

The handcuffs are strictly optional.

Chained to the Death Star

Many have objected to Apple's exclusive deal with Cingular, soon to be rebranded someting incredibly awkward like “Wireless Services from AT&T.”

PR-wise, linking Apple to Ma Bell Death Star kind of sticks in my craw, but when I reflect on it for a moment, it's not like I get a gooey feeling inside when I think about any other wireless provider. Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint hardly conjure images of fuzzy bear cubs frolicking with kittens riding unicorns. All carriers lock the phones they sell to their networks (at least here in the US). Let's assume, though, that Apple thought about the prospect of an unlocked phone; my guess is that meant the prospect of an unsubsidized phone as well. As pricey as the iPhone sounds today, I'd hate to see how much it might cost without Cingular/AT&T's support.

I suppose the reasons for carrier lock-in are obvious but unimportant for a customer who wants their phone unlocked for a trip abroad, for example (international roaming charges are a killer—far better to get a prepaid account and a local number) but, unless I'm mistaken, won't third parties rush into the gap to service that market? After all, it doesn't appear to be illegal to unlock a phone, and the DMCA specifically permits reverse engineering carrier locks when the objective is to allow the user to legitimately connect to a telecommunications network.

I suppose you could fairly accuse the iPhone of lock-in here, since Motorola and Palm (to name just two mobile device manufacturers) both sell unlocked GSM phones direct to the customer. Even so, it's interesting to note that neither of them sell their complete product line unlocked. The iPhone product line only has one model (with two storage capacity options, 8GB and 4GB). I'm interested to see what happens with a broader product lineup, or when Apple (or third parties) starts selling refurbished iPhones, but I'm slightly more persuaded on the lock-in front than I am by the DRM arguments.

No software

If the pernicious effects of DRM are well-known, and carrier lock-in is a long-standing frustration, then the new new (bad) thing about the iPhone is that, despite the fact that there's a real computer in that little sucker, you can't control what software gets installed on it. In other words, it's a pretty closed platform, more restricted than Mac OS X for Macintosh computers.

Jobs has been pilloried for claiming that this lock-down is really in the interest of the owner, since

You need it to work when you need it to work. Cingular doesn’t want to see their West Coast network go down because some application messed up.

The sound that followed was every Treo-using Cingular subscriber on the West Coast going “Wa-huh?”

Fine. Whatever. Like I said, Apple's under no obligation to do things like open up the iPod or the iPhone as platforms just because a bunch of us think it would be nifty. Leaving aside for a second the argument that open platforms beat closed platforms (a position I would argue hasn't proved true in the mobile device business, but, there you go, I'm leaving that aside now), when I look at the iPhone I really have to ask myself “What software would I want to install on this thing?”

The answer? None.

The iPhone isn't a general computing device: it's a mobile internet client. What do you really need on a mobile internet client, except mail, chat, and browsing capabilities? You can check all those off, since they come installed on the iPhone by default. Otherwise, most of the really cool applications I find myself using today don't require a open platform API, they require modern, standards-based HTML and JavaScript rendering. Maybe Flash for good measure.

The bad news here is that none of the things on my wishlist (real JavaScript support, Flash, etc) is, apparently, a done deal.

Mr Jobs, if you can hear the sound of my typing, please don't make me look like a idiot on this: make sure this puppy plays nice with web 2.0.

Are we dealing with it yet?

So, is the situation as dire as Stross, Doctorow, Winer, and others say? It doesn't seem so to me. Perhaps my real fight is with the pithmasters at the Times; that title really irked me. The iPhone doesn't seem like a particularly restrictive device to me. At least not yet. June is still a long way off.

Is it a wide-open bastion of freedom? No. But, you know what? Troll Alibaba for a Chinese contract handset manufacturer, and run off a few thousand generic GSM handsets. Pick an embeddable Linux and run with it. Hell, you'll be able to squeeze Java in there too, and nobody will be able to tell you what to do.

Go ahead. Nobody's forcing you to wait for the iPhone.

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