The Free Software Foundation has done some truly amazing things for computers. The creation of Emacs, GCC, most of the standard Linux utilities, and the genesis of the ideas that later created Open Source (although, Stallman despises it), are just a few of the important things they’ve done. They generally fight the good fight and make the computer world a better place to be.
However, over the past few years, something seems to have changed within the Free Software Foundation. With the rise of DRM the Free Software Foundation began to organize vocal protests against systems that enabled content providers to protect their creations – after all, Free software doesn’t need such protections. Activists in haz-mat suits could be seen at product launches for Windows Vista, at the Virgin Megastore, and lots of other places where they thought they could get attention. Always handing out little stickers explaining the problems with DRM. In fact, for a very long time, I’ve had a defective by design sticker on my laptop.
Of course, this was 2006 and times were very different back then. There weren’t any stores to purchase non-DRM’d music, now it seems you can purchase it everywhere, so the whole DRM’d music issue is a bit more moot now. Instead, the Defective by Design campaign has chosen to focus on any system that enables DRM. Well, I shouldn’t say any system that enables, just some systems – in particular the iPhone 3G. In their latest effort, Defective by Design has been actively encouraging people to book times at Apple Genius bars to harass employees and customers. First, let’s look at the five claims they make about the iPhone 3G:
1. iPhone completely blocks free software. Developers must pay a tax to Apple, who becomes the sole authority over what can and can’t be on everyone’s phones.
This is partially true. It does cost money to become an official iPhone developer, but the amount is actually quite small, $99. There is also the little annoyance of the current NDA on the developer kit that also restricts what developers can do, although it is expected to be lifted soon. However, it fails on a couple of points. First, if you’re an iPhone developer, you can run any application you develop on your iPhone and those of 4 other people. Once the beta system comes you’ll be able to distribute to 100 other people. For small scale distribution this is pretty good. And second, and perhaps bigger, there is always the option of jailbreaking your phone to run whatever the heck you want. If you want to develop other applications, you’re more than free to download the iPhone unofficial SDK. Last year when Bradley Kuhn, former FSF Executive Director, spoke at Ohio LinuxFest he bragged about removing DRM from music, so I’d assume they’d be find with this.
2. iPhone endorses and supports Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) technology.
That’s correct, the iPhone supports DRM’d files. It also supports non-DRM’d files too. Unlike Yahoo which cut off customers who purchased this music, Apple intends to continue to support them. Video files are still encumbered, but I don’t know of any legal way to get high quality digital video that isn’t encumbered. That’s an issue you’ll have to take up with the industry, Apple is just ensuring people can use it. Remember, with music DRM came first, then when it failed, we got open systems. There is no reason to expect it will be different with movies and TV shows.
Another aspect where the iPhone supports DRM is with iPhone apps. I’d imagine this is partially necessary to keep people from pirating the apps. When piracy rates for PC software may run above 95%, there no reason to assume that people aren’t going to pirate software. Yes, there is DRM there, but it’s pretty weak and lets me load the apps on any of the phones on my plan. Not to mention, it’s been shown to be trivial to remove the DRM, although, that currently doesn’t let one run the app on another phone.
3. iPhone exposes your whereabouts and provides ways for others to track you without your knowledge.
Complete bullshit. Whoever wrote this has never touched an iPhone and clearly doesn’t realize that every app must ask before it can use your location information. The only tracking that happens is whatever the carriers and law enforcement people typically use to track folks.
4. iPhone won’t play patent-and-DRM-free formats like Ogg Vorbis and Theora.
Waah. Neither will most other things. If Vorbis and Theora are great from a technical perspective then you’d think you’d see a lot more of them floating around – but they’re not. Yes, I’m sure that Apple could implement at Theora and Vorbis codec in the iPhone, but I doubt it’s worth their time. The people who really care about those issues aren’t the kind of people who use iPhones to begin with. Apple is concerned about making the user experience good. Providing too many options leads to M-x play-vorbis-song. Not very friendly.
5. iPhone is not the only option. There are better alternatives on the horizon that respect your freedom, don’t spy on you, play free media formats, and let you use free software – like the FreeRunner.
That’s somewhat correct. The FreeRunner, along with with its incomplete and buggy software is now available. I’ve played with them – I tried to make a call with one. It crashed. I tried to lock at pictures. It crashed. I couldn’t check my email with it. There weren’t any well polished apps for it. The list goes on. The FreeRunner may be an option for some people, but it’s expensive and has little software. If I’m trying to get stuff done, that’s not a good thing.
Beyond the five points, of which, I’ve just shown have approximately 2 points of validity, the campaign contains a questionnaire that you’re supposed to use to quiz the Apple genius. So, lets look at these questions:
1. Why do all developers have to submit their applications to Apple before they can be loaded onto an iPhone? Most smartphones, including those by OpenMoko, Nokia, RIM, Palm and even Microsoft, allow applications to come from a variety of sources, including free software developers. Free ”as in freedom” software development requires that users and developers be able to share and modify the source code for programs they use. iPhone users are not permitted by Apple to share or load modified versions of programs distributed through the App Store – even when a program’s developer wants users to be able to do this! Apple markets itself as empowering, alternative technology – How does Apple plan to support free software development?
a. Did the Genius understand the issue of free software?
b. Did they admit that other devices allow you to install applications from a variety of sources?
I’d like to first point out that this is a couple of issues all muddled together into one. Apple does allow Free software developers to develop for the iPhone, the WordPress people provide the source code to their app. Then, all that is standing in your way is the $99 developers fee. Once you’ve got that, run Free and Open Source to your hearts content. The issue is regarding supporting Free software. Apple has no obligation or business case that would require them to do so. Their system is based on Open Source which is not free – if they chose to contribute back they may. However, allowing just anyone to create an untested unverified app that can brick your cell phone or really whack out the cell network, well, that’s not such a great idea. The FSF needs to realize that the cell network is fundamentally different than a computer network. A malicious or poorly designed app can easily degrade the shared communication for everyone and rack up lots of bills for you. This poses a question that I’d like to ask the FSF people: How would Free software benefit the iPhone?
2. Why does iTunes still contain so much DRM-laden music? Services like Amazon, eMusic, Napster, Rhapsody, Play.com and 7digital are all selling music without DRM. A typical response to this might be that Apple has no option to sell media without DRM, but this is simply untrue. Jobs is the majority shareholder at Disney, and he could insist that its films be DRM-free. Apple should be leading the way to promote DRM-free music, but instead is lagging behind. What is Apple doing to fix this? If it really is the RIAA’s fault, can you tell me specifically what the RIAA said to Jobs when he asked for the ability to sell DRM-free music?
a. Did the Genius understand that Amazon, Rhapsody and Napster, along with many others are supporting DRM free music from the very same labels and artists that Apple is selling, laden with Digital Restrictions Management?
b. Did the Genius understand that DRM is not about rights, but about restrictions? Restricting the people who buy the music and videos from playing them on a variety of devices, like CDs and DVDs. Did the Genius understand that Steve Jobs’ role at Disney could be used to leverage Disney going DRM-free?
This one I don’t have a solid answer for. I’d imagine that part of the reason why there are protected tracks has to do with longer term contracts. Another reason may have to deal with a lack of incentive to change. In either case, the Genius is unlikely to have this sort of knowledge. They’re NOT your personal Apple PR person, so just deal with it. Point two, I have a bit better response to. I can understand why individuals would want to protect their content with DRM - especially when some people are so eager to steal your intellectual property. So in that response, it is about the rights of the producer. When I create something I should have the right to dictate to some degree who it is used. That’s codified in US Copyright law – you know, the exclusive right bit. Yeah, you might want to check that out. What isn’t clearly codified is fair use. It’s a much murkier proposition. Want to change this? Start by codifying fair use in US law.
With regards to Disney, this is a pretty good point. Steve could probably push Disney to drop DRM, but there would need to be a business case for it. He has a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders still – so, unless you can show me that such a decision would improve Disney’s bottom line, then you have no argument.
3. The iPhone 3G has GPS support. How can users be sure that the GPS cannot be used to track their position, without their permission? When the only thing preventing the GPS from being used is software, and the software in question is known only to Apple, why should users of the iPhone trust Apple?
a. Did the Genius understand why GPS in a device is an issue?
b. Did the Genius understand why the fact that the iPhone is proprietary is an issue here?
c. Did the Genius express any kind of apology for this behavior?
Once again, seem my previous point regarding their five claims against the iPhone 3G. This is not an issue. The software asks before it uses your location. Every cell phone has some sort of GPS in it that is used for E911 services, therefore every cell phone could be rigged to spy on people. You’re now crossing into conspiracy territory and losing credibility fast.
4. In ’Thoughts on Music’, Steve Jobs said ”it is useful to remember that all iPods play music that is free of any DRM and encoded in ’open’ licensable formats such as MP3 and AAC”. If Steve really wants to see free and open formats, why doesn’t the iPhone play Ogg Vorbis, Ogg Theora video and FLAC? These formats require no licensing costs, and are not encumbered by patents. How does Apple plan to support these formats in future?
a. Did the Genius understand the issue of free formats, such as Ogg Vorbis?
b. Did the Genius give any indication as to Apple’s lack of support for these formats?
Let’s turn this around, if the Free Software Foundation really supports free and open formats, why don’t they let my arbitrarily designed custom bitstream for my handycam shot movie. It’s a documented format that is free and open on the web. Exactly. Most people don’t care about these issues. Using Apple stuff is like shopping in the organic food aisle at the super market – less selection, but the stuff is tasty. Windows, which supports all those formats through various plugins, is like shopping in a regular supermarket. If the FSF had their way, we’d be shopping in post-Katrina looted supermarkets with broken shopping carts – multimedia doesn’t work that well in Linux, maybe the desire to support way too many formats is part of the reason. Choice isn’t always good, especially when those choices really suck. With regards to FLAC, people who really care about FLAC already have padded rooms with vacuum tube amps and wouldn’t dream of listening to their music on something as pedestrian as a personal music player.
5. Last question. Why can the iPhone 3G only be activated by Apple and AT&T? In the United States, the Register of Copyrights has ruled that consumers have the right to unlock their phones and switch to a different carrier. How does Apple plan to remedy this discrepancy?
a. Did the Genius offer any advice or suggestions in unlocking your iPhone and moving it to another provider?
b. Did the Genius admit that Apple is getting kickbacks from your phone bill in exchange for locking you to a single provider?
c. Did the Genius offer any timeframe for Apple fixing this, despite the Register of Copyrights ruling?
The decision the FSF is referring to is the latest set of DMCA exemptions. You’ll notice that they don’t require carriers to assist you in unlocking your phone. The decision merely makes it legal to unlock your phone. So, FSF people, get cracking and write the software that will allow me to slip in a local SIM card when I go to Greece.
With regards to the other sub points, there is no reason why the Apple rep should provide the information on how to change a carrier. They’ve got a contract with AT&T saying that AT&T will be the exclusive carrier. AT&T is subsidizing the prices of the phones, contributing to advertising, maintaining the infrastructure that makes the phone useful. This isn’t cheap, in fact AT&T has said that they’re planning on taking a $720 million dollar hit from subsidizing the iPhone. That’s a huge chunk of change that AT&T is spending to support a piece of Apple hardware. Also, in the US switching to another provider inherently makes your iPhone suck more as T-Mobile is the only other major GSM carrier in the US and their 3G network won’t be ready until October 1st, and even then, it’s only 27 markets.
With regards to kickbacks, it’s well documented that Apple is getting even more kickbacks from AT&T. Just by purchasing a phone at an Apple store you’re causing AT&T to pay $100 to Apple for signing up a new customer, on top of the $300 or so that they’re subsidizing the purchase price. However, the older kickback system where Apple got a portion of the monthly bill, is no longer in effect. So, I think that I’ve been able to go through and show that most of the campaign by the FSF is wrong, or just based on incorrect facts, and on the basis of these incorrect facts they’re going into Apple stores and bothering employees who 1) really don’t care and 2) have better things to do. Yeah, way to go FSF, I’m sure you’ll find some freetards who will be excited by this, but everyone else sees that you’re just being dicks. Go back to your crappy little script that downloads text only web pages and the rest of will enjoy the future. Oh wait, nevermind, Stallman deleted the wireless firmware from his laptop…