By Martyn Warwick , Telecoms TV
27 July 2010
Ever since the iPhone was introduced, users have complained about Apple's ruthless and remorseless determination to control access to apps other than those "authorised" by the company. That hated lock-in is now over. iPhone owners are now free to unlock the handset and to use applications that Apple, for whatever reason, was preventing them from accessing. It's called "jailbreaking" as Martyn Warwick reports.
Now though, one of the user's biggest bugbears has been resolved, but not by the likes of the FCC or other US regulatory authority. This "get out of jail free" card comes courtesy of a ruling by the of Library of Congress.
That august body has a Copyright Office that is empowered to undertake a periodic review of the denial of access to, or other blocking of, legal uses of technology by US consumers, and after being lobbied by the influential consumer action and privacy-rights group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, James Billington, the Librarian of the Library of Congress has outlawed Apple's control-freakery by ruling that unlocking the iPhone is not a breach of copyright.
Corynne McSherry, a senior attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, commented, "People can now go ahead and fix their phones and jailbreak them so they can run all sorts of different applications. They can make full use of the phone they bought without some kind of legal liability hanging over their head.”
Apple has sold some 60 million iPhones since 2007 and its App Store has more than 225,000 applications available for download. However, the mysterious and secretive process that determines whether or not an app submitted by a third-party developer is approved for listing in the Apple App Store has long been a bone of contention. Apple's selection process is widely regarded as capricious, controlling, overly self-serving and protectionist.
The unlocking (jailbreaking) of any mobile handset, not just the iPhone, (although Apple is regarded as the worst gaoler of the lot) so that it will run on another network and with other than "authorised " applications has been, technically, a legal offence for years but no-one has ever been hauled to court over what is/was an unenforceable and highly discriminatory law. That said, having a smartphone unlocked can invalidate the warranty on the device and that certainly applies in the case of Apple.
It is a given that Apple always rails against any perceived attack on its hegemony over its customers and has always maintained that jailbreaking is a violation of copyright. The FCC though has opined that the unlocking of handsets is not a crime but a legitimate "fair useage" practice that serves to "enhance the interoperability of smartphones, including the iPhone."
In response Apple has issued a statement saying, "Apple’s goal has always been to ensure that our customers have a great experience with their iPhone and we know that jailbreaking can severely degrade the experience. As we’ve said before, the vast majority of customers do not jailbreak their iPhones as this can violate the warranty and can cause the iPhone to become unstable and not work reliably.” And blah, blah, blah.
Apple adds that it does not allow some apps through its secretive screening process "because they have technical bugs or contain material such as pornography that the company considers inappropriate." Yeah, right - and what about all those apps that don't have bugs or contain porn?
It seems highly likely - indeed it's a racing certainty - that Apple will now adapt the iPhone OS to make it more difficult for users to upload non-approved apps and might even try to lean on mobile operators selling the iPhone to make life more difficult for the heretic users wanting to download apps beyond the pale of Apple's approval.
The company could even appeal the Library of Congress ruling or invoke other legislation to try, Canute-like, to roll back the prevailing tide. However that could well prove to be a counter-productive high-risk strategy that might well expose Apple to class action lawsuits by groups of consumers aggrieved by the company's discriminatory apps policies.
As Jonathan Handel, an attorney at the Los Angeles-headquatered legal practice of TroyGould wittily observes. "After all, when you buy a kitchen blender you don't expect the manufacturer to tell you not to make a margarita with it."
A brilliant remark that gets right to the core of the Apple apps matter. When you buy a piece of kit it should be yours. You have paid for it and should be able to do whatever you like with it - and that means if you want to put an iPhone in your kitchen blender, that's your choice.