It’s amazing to me the extent to which technology companies are going these days to maintain as much control over the electronics they produce as possible. There’s a balance between the intellectual property rights of those who write the code that runs on these electronics and the rights of property owners to use their property how they want. These examples are interesting to me:
Apple iPhone 4
Apple is notorious for maintaining tight control over its ecosystem. Product plans are veiled in secrecy. The stated end goal is a worthy one–building an environment where things “just work.” In a lot of ways controlling the hardware and software and the available applications helps the average consumer. In other ways it harms them and seemingly serves corporate interests (Google Voice app, anyone?).
One thing Apple decided to do with the iPhone that really interests me is effort Apple has put into making the actual physical device as non-user serviceable as possible. This article over at Ars Technica describes a brand new type of screw that Apple started using on the iPhone 4 after its release (including replacing the original philips head screws with their new pentalobe shaped ones). Some ideas are that the shape of the screw might reduce wear on the machines putting them in during the manufacturing process. The main reason, I think is that Apple wants to keep the owners out of the phones. If the battery starts to die, Apple wants the user to use its repair services. If the screen or glass breaks, Apple doesn’t want the user making the repair.
What if the wheels on brand new cars were secured with special lug nuts that only the dealer could remove? That seems to be what Apple’s doing with the iPhone.
Sony PlayStation 3
The PlayStation is another interesting example. Sony originally sold the PlayStation 3 with an OtherOS feature, which allowed owners to load Linux onto the device and use the powerful hardware for interesting activities. Weaknesses in the firmware scared Sony into removing this advertised feature from the device. With continued lawsuits against those who post encryption keys that would allow owners to hack their PlayStation 3’s, Sony is probably trying to protect against piracy and loss of royalty/licensing revenues when users purchase games for the system.
Removing the feature from software updates for the device wouldn’t be such a big deal to me if it weren’t for a few things: 1) the feature was an advertised selling point, 2) although users could choose not to update their device’s software, they would be locked out of using the online gaming feature, and 3) the device is otherwise locked down to prevent user modification–Sony is essentially saying to customers, “You can buy our device, but you have to use it the way we say.”
It seems to me that if I buy something I should be able to use it how I want, to the extent that my use of the product does not infringe on other’s rights or safety. I should not be allowed to drive around town in a car I’ve modified beyond legal limits that have been imposed for safety. I should be able to buy a coffee table and use it as a workbench if I want, and I should be able to buy a phone and do whatever I want to it, too.