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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Your Alpha Nerd Moment of Zen

From a Hooters news release:

Warren Buffet and Bill gates pose with a gaggle of Hooters girls.

(Atlanta, GA) While they surely don't need the help, the world's two richest men can now eat for free at Hooters restaurants. On Friday October 20, 2006 Bill Gates and Warren Buffet were presented with Hooters VIP Cards at a Hooters Restaurant in Kansas City, Kansas. The Cards entitle the gentlemen, who currently rank numbers 1 and 2 on the list of worlds richest, to free food at any of the chains 435 locations in 46 states and 20 countries exclusive of tip and alcohol.

The pair made a stop at the Hooters Restaurant along with members of the Board of Directors for Berkshire Hathaway. The visit came at the request of Buffet so the group could pose for a Christmas Card photo with the chain's beautiful Hooters girls. “It was an honor to have these powerful individuals dine in my store” said Jason Fetters General manager of the Hooters located at 1712 Village West Parkway, Kansas City, Kansas. “Clearly these guys can go anywhere they want to. The fact that they picked Hooters hopefully says something about the strength of our brand.”

I guess we can assume that from now on, all of Bill Gates' and Warren Buffet's reviews of Hooters on their blogs will have the taint (hah!) of bias.

(Yes, I did note that the Hooters site runs on old-school ASP…)


That's One Sweet Phone

Today's PvP comic made me laugh:

'PvP' comic on the iPhone, January 9, 2007: 'Jesus has come back and he's a phone now.



Apple's $100 question

The iPhone (I didn't think they were going to call it that—my money was on iPod phone), by my estimation, lived up to the pre-show hype. Using an old salesman's tactic, Steve saved the price for the end: $500 for the 4GB iPhone, and $600 for the 8GB model. At the low end, Apple's giving their smartphone competitors a $100 advantage. Will customers go the extra c-note for Apple?

It helps to dig into the way Apple's positioning the iPhone. I rather like the way Jobs described it as really three devices in one: an iPod, a phone, and an internet client.

As an iPod, the iPhone:

  • has as much storage as an iPod nano
  • plays video like a 5G iPod
  • has a high-resolution 3.5 inch widescreen display
  • syncs through iTunes

As a phone:

  • is a quad-band GSM world phone with EDGE for data
  • incorporates a 2 megapixel camera
  • uh…makes calls, manages voicemail, and supports SMS
  • synchronizes contacts from your desktop computer

And, as an internet device:

  • it runs a real operating system, Mac OS X
  • sports a real browser (Safari)
  • has an HTML-rendering email client that supports most POP and IMAP mail services
  • has custom-built support for Google Search and Maps
  • can run Dashboard widgets
  • can connect over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

So what we're really looking at is a single device that, taken as any one of it's three stand-alone components, does something new (it's the first widescreen iPod, it's a significant new mobile network computing device), or does something particularly well (thanks to the Mac OS X underpinnings and the touchscreen interface, it's a very, very slick phone). And the way the iPhone works is where Apple starts to really pull away from the competition.

Doubtless we'll hear Palm and Microsoft, for example, counter Apple's hype by pointing out their devices can claim similar, if not even more impressive feature lists. Take the Treo 750, which runs Windows Mobile, but already retails through Cingular for $100 less than the lower-end iPhone will. You'd have to call Windows Mobile a real OS, Microsoft has Windows Mobile Office viewer applications already developed, and the 750 already supports 3G, which gives it a significant speed edge (where you can find coverage, that is). Again, though, even if Apple and Microsoft are close on the "what," Apple blows them away on the "how." Apple's iPhone is to Windows Mobile as Mac OS X is to Windows XP; Microsoft needs the equivalent of Windows Mobile Vista to even catch up to the iPhone's (clearly obvious) ease of use.

And let's not even get started on pitting Apple's industrial design against Palm's.

The question, again, is whether buyers will see the extra $100 they have to pay (while not getting 3G in the deal, and other little quibbles) as a bargain, given not just what the iPhone does, but how it goes about doing it. Personally, T-Mobile can expect this subscriber to be cancelling his contract in the second half of this year. Judging by the reaction in the markets, investors are betting that I won't be the only one, either.

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Christmas 2.0, or the Apple Stevenote

Part of me is cooly professional about the whole thing, the rest of me is giddy as a schoolgirl. Apple's Steve Jobs will counterpoint the hoopla from CES with his keynote at MacWorld Expo. Steve won't take the stage for several hours, but the Wall Street Journal has already started the drip, drip, drip of news:

The anticipation for this year's Macworld — the main trade show for Apple products — has been unusually strong, stoked by a widening array of bloggers who constantly churn out Apple rumors.

For one thing, people familiar with the matter say Apple is working on a device that combines the iPod with a cellphone, which is expected to be announced as early as today. Cingular Wireless, owned by AT&T Inc., will provide cellphone service to go with the phone, these people say. Such a product would give Apple access to the huge wireless business, with nearly a billion handsets shipped every year. That dwarfs the nearly 70 million iPods Apple has sold over the past five years.

Apple spokesman Steve Dowling declined to comment on what he called "rumor and speculation" when asked about a Cingular-Apple deal.

The language is loaded with careful hedges, to be sure, but the Journal's decision to run with the story puts some weight behind what, until now, had been speculation.

Also of note, the roster of studios putting their movie titles on the iTunes Store stands to grow one name longer, with Viacom joining Disney:

n a deal that Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs could announce as early as Tuesday at his Macworld conference, Apple plans to start selling Paramount titles on its iTunes service, according to people familiar with the situation.

For the moment, the deal will only cover Paramount's back catalog, the people said. Paramount's catalog includes titles such as "Forrest Gump," "Mission: Impossible" and "The Truman Show."

Until the studio can allay fears among their retail partners that new DVD releases won't suffer from a digital sales channel, Paramount will stick to their back catalog.

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Daylife went beta

I thought I'd add my perspective on Daylife's recent move from private alpha to public beta.

Daylife's a much-anticipated project, given its star-filled investor roster and its discreet-bordering-on-secretive launch early stages, so it was bound to get a throrough once-over when it de-cloaked, but after Mike "Techcrunch" Arrington deemed himself "underwhelmed" well, that raised the stakes a little.

It seems like a lot of the negative reviews stem from what I think is a misunderstanding of what people are really seeing when they look at Daylife. It's more than a simple news aggregator (like Google News, TechMeme, or Megite), and it's definitely not a news community (like Digg or, nor a hybrid (like Newsvine). Sure, on the surface it looks like some of those services, probably because the initial functionality you see is a very slick, capable news magazine that pulls stories from a number of online sources, but a few clicks will show you that Daylife goes much deeper.

Like Google News or TechMeme, Daylife clusters stories around a single event, giving you multiple perspectives on a topic. Where Daylife distinguishes itself is in pulling other relevant elements out of those same stories, and letting you drill-in or pivot on them. For example, say the G8 leaders meet in Paris to discuss debt relief for Africa, and Bono drops by to give them a little talk. Both Google News and Daylife will collect stories on this international event from across the web, but Daylife will also link you to news about the people involved (President Bush, Prime Minister Blair, or Bono, to name a few), the places featured (Paris, Africa, Europe, etc), and the organizations (the G8, IMF, or World Bank, let's say). Click on any of those links, and not only do you get the G8 summit angle on those people, places, and organizations, you also get to see any other recent news related to them.

All of these neat features highlight the really important thing about Daylife: they're building a database of news that tries to understand and map out the connections between the people, places, and organizations that get mentioned within the stories (and who knows what other news elements they're busily wiring together under the hood), and making that platform available for others to use. Daylife The Application—the thing you see when you dial the Daylife URL into your browser—is just one reference application built atop Daylife The Platform.

So, if there's no comments, voting, or RSS (for now), I'm not particularly concerned. As someone who's been using Daylife for a few months now, I think it's a great application, well-presented. As an eager reader of the news, I'm excited to see all the information news sources create mined and processed to tease out the connections we all know to be there (and those connections, in turn, made available for others to do with as they see fit). As a friend of the company, I wish them luck.

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PCs come off better in Apple's ads than in Microsoft's own marketing

I take back every nice thing I said about Windows Home Server in my post below. Every last word. Why? Because Microsoft has decided that this irritating jerk would be the best way to overcome the difficulty of selling the idea of servers into the home:

One visit to this site and I've gone from thinking that Microsoft was well-intentioned, but confused, to believing they're blinkered, arrogant, and tone-deaf. Is this Dr Blowhard Moron, MD, character meant to represent how Microsoft helps me, or does this cross-dressing, plushie-fondling granny represent me, the hapless home user? This guy is an idiot.

They're insane.

And, yes, I know Microsoft's been running this "viral" site for a few weeks now (at least), but I hadn't bothered taking a look until today.

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