Under Lock and Key: Apple

posted by on 21st October 2008, at 5:06pm

From the title of this article you may have gathered that this might be about locking an Apple in your house and forgetting the key… However, that is not the case this is a look at how Apple has been able to retain a tight lock on many of their products and not yet have a legal case. Legal cases are often very confusing and make little sense whatsoever. We aren’t going to dwell on the aspects of legal cases today primarily because I know it’s something that isn’t interesting and I’m not a lawyer. Apple has managed for the past 10 years to maintain a tight lock on their product line. This lock can be seen anywhere ranging from the iPhone and iPods to the newest MacBook’s. So without further adieu lets dive in and take a look at how extensive the Apple lock is.

The Apple lock exists in all forms on every product Apple ships in one way or another. The severity of the lock will depend on the users perspective. For example Mac hardware may seem more locked up to someone who comes from an open source background whereas someone who is a phone junkie will find the iPhone restrictive to a degree. There are also people who find iPods restrictive for the pure fact that after 3 years the battery will die and they will need to buy a new iPod. Despite what some users think Mac hardware is the least locked. The reason for this is that all the Apple computers have user replaceable memory except for the Mac Mini* and MacBook Air. The MacBook and MacBook Pro have user replaceable hard drives as well. It should also be noted that the Mac Pro is essentially like a PC tower and is user upgradeable. Second is Mac OS X, prior to the Intel conversion in 2006 OS X would inherently be the most locked up Apple product. The move to Intel enabled PC hackers to install OS X on a non-Apple machine within days. Right now it is a little more open in that respect however it is still illegal to install it on a standard machine otherwise known as a “hackintosh.” The reason OS X takes second is because just recently Apple has patented the Dock. Along with this is the Psystar case. Psystar has been selling and marketing computers that have Leopard installed on them by Psystar, according to the Apple EULA for Mac OS X Psystar’s actions are illegal. Psystar will ship a customer a machine that is comparable to an iMac. Apple and Psystar have decided to resolve this dispute quietly after Psystar counter-sued Apple based on an anti-trust case of OS X being locked up. We should find out in early 2009 what the outcome is of their talks. The iPhone at first launch was the most locked up Apple product one could find, the reason being, no third party applications. With the release of the 3G iPhone user created applications were added, however it is still locked to ATT in the US and Rogers in Canada. There are other ways to unlock it however that does void the device’s warranty and is technically illegal making it the most locked up Apple device.

The software and hardware locks act as a double edged sword both benefiting and hurting the company. As with any type of restriction it is biased towards negative affects. The benefit the software locks have provided is quite astounding. One of the main reasons that Apple hardware is stable (most of the time, all computers can crash) is because Mac OS is specifically designed to work on the hardware selection. On a Windows computer one has to deal with massive amounts of hardware, this massive amount creates problems for driver developers. Another benefit to creating a unified system across the product line, especially with the iPod it creates a hook to give people their first experience of Apple. Most people coming from the Windows platform will say that their first personal Mac experience was with an iPod, with this it’s only logical to assume that if the iPod experience is enjoyable they will be more likely to upgrade to a Mac. The same can also be said for the iPhone and iPod touch for their innovativeness as multi-purpose device that also serves as an interactive gaming platform. As a gaming platform these devices are often demoed for their touch screen and accelerometers allowing the user to move the device around as a control to play games. Finally a lock on hardware and or software allows Apple to maintain a certain edge factor that isn’t duplicatable by other companies. If a teenager goes to school and sees a friend demoing an iPod Touch they’re more likely to buy some incarnation of the iPod rather than a Zune or Sandisk Sansa. The same can also be said for the line of notebook computers and iMac.

The lock on hardware and software has not openly hurt Apple yet. With this being said it is worth looking at the consumer landscape due to this lock. In the long run if “hackintosh” computers become easier to build it may start to cut into sales for those who do not want an iMac yet a Mac Mini isn’t powerful enough. Another product for which the lock is troublesome is the iPhone. This problem exists less today due to the application store and the developer SDK. Prior to the release of the 3G iPhone users would have to “jailbreak” their phones in order to have access to other applications. Also prior to the 3G launch countries that could not get the iPhone would often see illegal iPhones that were jail-broken coming into the country and being used on other networks. We still see this sort of behavior to a degree especially in countries with more than one GSM cell provider. Still on the topic of the iPhone, each application must be approved by Apple. The approval progress ensures that applications work correctly and will not harm the phone or the network. The only caveat to this is that it enables Apple to have the exclusive power to determine what applications get sold and even in some cases remove application from an individuals phone. Finally we can look at the above mentioned case of the Dock patent as a negative towards general industry progress. There are many third party dock applications for Windows and Linux. With this patent there’s a risk that these companies could be fined for implementing the same technology that Apple did. It’s always something in the back of the mind of a software developer/designer, that is, whether or not feature X will incriminate on someone else’s patent. The lock does hurt Apple but not in such a giant way that they are willing to ease up on restraints.

After looking at the arguments we have to ask ourselves, are we likely to see any change in the future? The simple answer is no. Apple is a hardware company, if this lock was opened up there would be no reason for people to upgrade to the next Mac computer or buy a Mac at all. The only time we would see this lock open up is if Apple had suffered a decrease in sales and had explored all other options to increase sales. The other probable chance of the lock being opened up is that an anti-trust case would be opened once Apple reaches a higher percentage of market share. Right now Apple’s numbers are not significant enough to warrant an anti-trust case, but that could change in the future. With this being said a Mac is still a viable alternative if you are the type of person who wants nothing to do with upgrading their computer’s CPU and video card every two years. If you are not that type of person a Mac is most likely not for you. The lock is not a reason to not buy Apple it’s just merely something that a person should be aware of before they make their decision.

*The Mac Mini’s RAM can be user replaced however it is not a simple task.

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  • Jamar Grills Says:
    22nd December 2009, at 2:54pm

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  • Marlin Dreger Says:
    28th January 2010, at 11:44pm

    Lots of of bloggers are not very happy with the new iPad.There was just 2 much hoopla over it and alot blogers got turned off.Quite frankly, I actually see lots of the cool potential uses of the gizmo. Third-party applications for doing tunes, games, newsprints and magazines and FFS books, all kinds of cool stuff, but IMHO they just didn’t really sell it right (excluding the books). It looks rather incomplete