Saturday, October 06, 2007

Poisoned Apples

It's an old question among free software advocates: Would you buy a car with the hood welded shut -- a car that could be fixed only by the manufacturer, not by the mechanic down your street? If not, why do you accept those terms for software?

The point of having access to the internals of your car, or the source code of your software, is not necessarily that you personally can fix it if it goes wrong. The point is that you have access to numerous experts who can do so for a fee, or who can advise you for free.

So Microsoft sells you cars with the hood welded shut, and you are at their mercy when things go wrong, which is pretty often. But Apple takes it to the next level.

At least Microsoft allows you to install your own fittings. If you prefer your own car stereo, or upholstery, or radio, you may install them. You have freedom of service providers -- you can use what fuel you like, what oil you like, what roads you like.

Apple seals not only the hood, but the fittings. You are not allowed to install your own. If you install any third-party utility, or if you use an unapproved service provider, they come in and destroy your machine. You spent a few hundred dollars on a shiny new iPhone, and you are now left with a useless slab of metal and plastic, a "brick", because you had the temerity to install third-party applications on it or try to use it on a service provider other than AT&T. (Incidentally, in the case of the iPhone, the hood is literally welded shut -- you can't even replace the battery without shipping it to Apple, and renting a replacement phone at exorbitant rates while you wait.)

This story came out days ago. Some commentators argued that it must have been an honest mistake -- Apple pushed out an incompletely-tested update that "bricked" some unmodified phones as well as modified or unlocked ones. One could believe this, except that Apple themselves threatened their customers with bricked phones if they dared "unlock" them. Others said that maybe AT&T forced Apple to do this -- but every previous report about the iPhone had said it was Apple calling the shots over every aspect of the deal.

No matter. What sort of company goes around destroying its own customers' property? If it had been a genuine mistake, wouldn't you expect, at least a mea culpa, if not some sort of compensation? None has come -- Apple's spokespeople have recommended that customers buy a new iPhone. Which may happen in the fantasy-world that Apple seems to live in, but in the real world, not only are owners of bricked iPhones unlikely to touch Apple again, but interested spectators like me are likely to stay away too. (I was seriously considering a Mac for a new computer -- Unix under the hood, more stable than Windows, friendlier -- at least in some ways -- than Linux. But no longer.)

So, no mea culpa from Apple. Instead comes the expected lawsuit.


Anonymous said...

Guess we need to wait for the phone running OpenMoko, which you wrote about.

Anonymous said...

Seems to be available online already.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting to see the dark side of apple. Nokia E61i for me. Thank You.

Anonymous said...

I think you are confusing between the MAC OS and iPhone. I agree, bricking the phone is a complete PR disaster, but I think its more out of ATT pressure rather than Apple willing to do it itself. Apple doesn't lose any revenue from customers who refuse ATT, but ATT does. Considering Apple's record of fighting against DRM music and all, I believe this is a ATT induced drama.

As far as MAC goes - I switched 2 months back. There is no reason for me to switch back at all for me :)

Rahul Siddharthan said...

anonymous -- yes, I'd be interested in the OpenMoko. But as of today it's certainly not meant for the general user.

supremus -- I simply don't buy the "AT&T done it" argument. First, Apple easily has enough clout to say no. It would have been easier to merely refuse to upgrade unlocked phones. Second, it wasn't just unlocked phones that were bricked: it was phones with third-party applications installed.

I don't trust a company that can do this, and therefore I will not buy an Apple.

As for the DRM thing -- Jobs merely saw which way the wind was blowing. I give him no credit for it. In fact, as others have pointed out, many indie artists would be happy to let Apple sell DRM-free music (as they do on other sites like and, now, even Amazon). It was Apple who did not allow it. Blaming that on the big labels is absurd.

Anonymous said...

Apple wants to sell "Appliances" to users not devices that they are free to tinker around. Locking it down allows them to give a better, smoother experience to customers. (Vendor A selling iPhone installs application X which causes the phone to misbehave. You go and beat Apple up. Happens all the time with Windows - especially when OEMs load it up with all kinds of crapware)

Think of it like a washing machine or a refrigerator or a TV. You don't tinker with them. If you do, you void the warranty. Sure the manufacturer doesn't come and destroy them, but then these devices have never been connected to the internet for the companies to supply firmware upgrades :)

Anonymous said...

While I totally agree with you on the apple issue - and note it is not just iphones which are affected (I have a 1st gen iPod Shuffle which has also completely been disabled after the latest software update) I have som ebad news for you a la Microsoft. Pirated Versions of Vista will be disabled if they try to connect to Microsoft for updates....

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Anonymous - voiding the warranty is one thing. Wrecking the device, and then telling the customer that they have to buy another, is a different thing altogether.

Even if it was the customer's fault, and not covered by the warranty: why can't they say "we'll re-flash the thing for you, you will lose everything you had and it will be essentially a new phone, and we'll charge you service costs since you voided your warranty"? That's what I'd expect from customer service. Reinstalling should cost Apple nothing, and they can charge $50 or so for service.

If it is impossible to re-install the software on the iPhone, I'd regard that as a serious design flaw (and another reason not to buy Apple).

Or else, they can make it truly impossible to install your own software or hacks. It is based on OS X, which is BSD unix, after all. You can set it up so that not even the superuser can modify it -- FreeBSD has had that ability since before OS X existed.

I read somewhere, though, that all software on the iPhone essentially runs as root and has unrestricted permissions. If true, it shows Apple's cluelessness (and is yet another reason not to buy the iPhone).

Suresh said...

Sorry, but I tend to agree with the law professor quoted in the New York Times article:

J. Noah Funderburg, an assistant dean at the University of Alabama School of Law in Tuscaloosa and a longtime Mac user, had little sympathy for iPhone hot-rodders.

“Anyone who hacks must know that they are taking certain risks,” Mr. Funderburg said. ”If they aren’t willing to assume the risks upfront — like a brick iPhone — then maybe they should not hack the device.

“We have a free marketplace,” he said. “Buy a product, including using it on the terms accompanying the purchase, or don’t buy it. And learn to live with not always getting everything you want.”

You are right, though, in that Apple's actions could cause some people to not use the company's product now or in the future. Presumably, Apple has taken this into account. (If not, they may yet regret their actions.) The bit about "free marketplace" works both ways, after all.

I say all this despite being an exclusive Linux user myself.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Suresh -- not all terms may be enforceable. "If you tamper with the device, we void your warranty" is enforceable. "If you tamper with the device, you must give us our first-born son" is certainly not enforceable. "If you tamper with your device, we have the right to brick it via our next update" may or may not be enforceable -- it remains to be seen. But my main point is, regardless of whether the bricking was intentional, it is extremely hostile of Apple to tell customers that they are now on their own. The whole point of software is that it can be wiped and re-installed. Windows users do that all the time, but it is sometimes useful even on Linux (after backing up your data of course).

Suresh said...

Two quick points, Rahul. First, "legal" is a better word than "enforceable": Since Apple has bricked some iphones, their tactic is "enforceable" (that is, technically feasible) but it may not be legal in that it might violate some existing law. I guess that is what the California case is about.

Second, yes, Apple is being nasty, no questions about that. However, so long as their tactic is legal, they are entitled to be nasty.

In general, we are all entitled to be as nasty as we choose provided we don't break the law. Of course, if each of us took that literally, life would be hell. Just as well, only a few (ab)use legal provisions. But such abusers do exist - I think we all know examples of people and of course, companies who go out of their way to (legally) make other people's lives miserable. [In India, I might note that some of the companies in this category are those in our beloved "public sector."]

That's life, unfortunately. :-( And it is impossible to close all such loopholes. Indeed, our late unlamented licence-permit raj tells us where one can end by attempting to "close" all "loopholes." At least in a market setting, there is eventual hope: Apple's own nastiness may be its eventual downfall by creating incentives for other companies to come up with less nasty (and better) products. Hope someone comes up with one very soon.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

suresh - I agree, over-regulation is not the answer and not what I was asking for. Let the market decide.

It is not actually that simple -- many companies would love to be allowed to do what Apple did, and a legal precedent would be great for them. As someone pointed out above, Microsoft is trying some such anti-piracy tack with Windows Vista. Sony sold DRM'd CDs with rootkits. In my opinion, right now lawmakers are leaning too heavily toward "content producers", because they have the money, and not thinking about consumers. In America it is illegal for me to watch a legally-purchased DVD on my legally-purchased laptop running Linux legally -- because my DVD software is not "authorised" and relies on a hack. No customer is demanding that sort of thing. These are market failures. But the slow move away from DRM in music (eg, Amazon now) suggests that the market may work after all when a sufficient number of customers have been rubbed the wrong way.

Niket said...

You stupid stupid guy, don't you know Microsoft is Evil, Apple is just next to God. In fact, God himself isn't as great as Apple.