Apple launches pricey iPhone with crippleware

Steve Jobs, Apple’s showman nonpareil, provided the first public glimpse of the iPhone last week, gorgeous, feature-laden and pricey. While following the mas ter magician’s gestures, it was easy to overlook a most disappointing aspect: like its slimmer iPod siblings, the iPhone’s musicplaying function will be limited by factoryinstalled “crippleware”.

If “crippleware” seems an unduly harsh description, it balances the euphemistic names that the industry uses for copy protection. Apple officially calls its own standard “FairPlay”, but fair it is not.

The term “crippleware” comes from the plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit, Melanie Tucker Vs Apple Computer Inc., that is making its way through federal district court in Northern California. The suit contends that Apple unfairly restricts consumer choice because it does not load onto the iPod the software needed to play music that uses Microsoft’s copy-protection standard, in addition to Apple’s own.

Tucker’s core argument is that the absence of another company’s software on the iPod constitutes “crippleware”. I disagree. It is Apple’s own copy-protection software itself that cripples the device.

Here is how FairPlay works: When you buy songs at the iTunes Music Store, you can play them on one, and only one, line of portable player, the iPod. And when you buy an iPod, you can play copy-protected songs bought from one, and only one, online music store, the iTunes Music Store.

The only legal way around this built-in limitation is to strip out the copy protection by burning a CD with the tracks, then uploading the music back to the computer. If you’re willing to go to that trouble, you can play the music where and how you choose, the equivalent to rights that would have been granted automatically at the cash register if you had bought the same music on a CD in the first place.

Even if you are ready to pledge a lifetime commitment to the iPod as your only brand of portable music player or to the iPhone as your only cellphone once it is released, you may find that FairPlay copy protection will, sooner or later, cause you grief. You are always going to have to buy Apple stuff. Forever and ever. Because your iTunes will not play on anyone else’s hardware.

Apple pretends that the decision to use copy protection is out of its hands. In defending itself against Tucker’s lawsuit, Apple’s lawyers noted in passing that digital-rights-management software is required by the major record companies as a condition of permitting their music to be sold online, “Without D.R.M., legal online music stores would not exist.” In other words, however irksome customers may find the limitations imposed by copy protection, the fault is the music companies’, not Apple’s.

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