The iPhone or Marriage: which is the ultimate lock-in?

I wonder if Cory Doctorow believes in marriage. Or, if like his latest Boing Boing piece: iPhone – the roach motel business model, he disagrees with it on the basis that it is the ultimate “lock-in”. I ask in all sincerity because “lock-in” isn’t so bad if you like what you have. If, for example, […]

I wonder if Cory Doctorow believes in marriage.

Or, if like his latest Boing Boing piece: iPhone – the roach motel business model, he disagrees with it on the basis that it is the ultimate “lock-in”.

I ask in all sincerity because “lock-in” isn’t so bad if you like what you have. If, for example, Apple provides a markedly better user experience than other companies, people will buy the iPhone despite nasty DRM and other things.

Since the iPhone was released last week, this issue has come up again and again. Since I’m a Mac user, I’ve been paying close attention. After all, I’m tied-in with my laptop and iPod…I can’t simply choose any peripheral that I want and have it work with my iPod, for example. The content I purchase from the iTunes Store works only on my iPod. Since I have an iPod, its not an issue. If I wanted to use a non-Apple piece of hardware to play my songs and movies, I couldn’t.

What is at issue is mixing hardware and purchased content from various vendors. Cory, I presume, would want to be able to play his iTunes music on windows hardware…wait, he can already do that on his computer. (so let’s use Linux as an example). But it is true that he can’t play it on other mp3 players, unless he exports it using a 3rd party AAC to MP3 app, and that doesn’t seem right.

The counter-argument is that this sort of integration is necessary to have something “just work”, which is the primary and best reason why I used Macs. Ethan Kaplan has a piece: Enough already with the iPhone hand wringing! that represents that argument pretty well.

My guess is that Cory was worried mostly about content lock-in, that music or video files, once purchased, should be playable on all devices. I agree with that. I agree that we shouldn’t have content lock-in. Just as I want to be able to read Word documents on my Mac (with or without Office installed), I want to have access to my purchased iTunes files no matter what hardware I have in the future.

To some extent, however, hardware lock-in almost seems inevitable, given the speed with which innovation happens. I surely don’t want to go through the horrors of Windows hardware compatibility if I can help it. What a nightmare.

But lock-in is good in some cases. I’m completely “locked-in”, so to speak, to my wife and child, and I can’t think of a better position to be in.

The reason why I use the silly analogy of marriage, of course, is that we do have a choice here. We’re choosing to lock ourselves in. Let’s not forget that. And, whenever we howl to the moon about Google and privacy, remember that we don’t have to use the service. That’s the amazing part of this all…that these companies are so good at what they do that we’re willing to sacrifice other points in order to get them. Right now I’m happily in the Apple camp and, frankly, I don’t want to buy hardware from anyone else.

Design is always a balancing act. If, for example, there was no DRM in the downloadable songs we probably wouldn’t have the iTunes store to purchase them from. The studios just wouldn’t agree. If we didn’t have the iTunes music store, we would have to go buy CDs or go to another online music store, which have other restrictions. And, we might be stuck with systems that don’t “just work”.

I’m not trying to justify Apple’s actions here…I’m simply saying that they’ve got a hell of a lot of constraints, not just technical but social and political…and the end result is a balancing act. I’m happy with the way they’ve decided to go, compared with, say, Redmond.

So what’s your take? Are you happy with the idea of a locked down iPhone?

Published: January 15th, 2007

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