All posts filed under “Digital rights

Biting Apple

BBC News headline, 28 September 2007

Interesting to see the BBC’s summary of the current iPhone update story: “Apple issues an update which damages iPhones that have been hacked by users”. I’m not sure that’s quite how Apple’s PR people would have put it, but it’s interesting to see that whoever writes those little summaries for the BBC website found it easiest to sum up the story in this way. This is being portrayed as Apple deliberately, strategically damaging the phones, rather than an update unintentionally causing problems with unlocked or modified phones.

Regardless of what the specific issue is here, and whether unmodified iPhones have also lost functionality because of some problem with the update, can’t we just strip out all this nonsense? How many people who wanted an iPhone also wanted to be locked in to AT&T or whatever the local carrier will be in each market? Anyone? Who wants to be locked in to anything? What a waste of technical effort, sweat and customer goodwill: it’s utterly pathetic.

This is exactly what Fred Reichheld‘s ‘Bad profits’ idea calls out so neatly:

Whenever a customer feels misled, mistreated, ignored, or coerced, then profits from that customer are bad. Bad profits come from unfair or misleading pricing. Bad profits arise when companies save money by delivering a lousy customer experience. Bad profits are about extracting value from customers, not creating value.

If bad profits are earned at the expense of customers, good profits are earned with customers’ enthusiastic cooperation. A company earns good profits when it so delights its customers that they willingly come back for more–and not only that, they tell their friends and colleagues to do business with the company.

What is the question that can tell good profits from bad? Simplicity itself: How likely is it that you would recommend this company to a friend or colleague?

If your iPhone’s just turned into the most stylish paperweight in the office, are you likely to recommend it to a colleague?

More to the point, if Apple had moved – in the first place – into offering telecom services to go with the hardware, with high levels of user experience and a transparent pricing system, how many iPhone users and Mac evangelists wouldn’t have at least considered changing?

Another charging opportunity?

A knife blade cutting the cable of a generic charger/adaptor

Last month, an Apple patent application was published describing a method of “Protecting electronic devices from extended unauthorized use” – effectively a ‘charging rights management’ system.

New Scientist and OhGizmo have stories explaining the system; while the stated intention is to make stolen devices less useful/valuable (by preventing a thief charging them with unauthorised chargers), readers’ comments on both stories are as cynical as one would expect: depending on how the system is implemented, it could also prevent the owner of a device from buying a non-Apple-authorised replacement (or spare) charger, or from borrowing a friend’s charger, and in this sense it could simply be another way of creating a proprietary lock-in, another way to ‘charge’ the customer, as it were.

It also looks as though it would play havoc with clever homebrew charging systems such as Limor Fried‘s Minty Boost (incidentally the subject of a recent airline security débâcle) and similar commercial alternatives such as Mayhem‘s Anycharge, although these are already defeated by a few devices which require special drivers to allow charging.

Reading Apple’s patent application, what is claimed is fairly broad with regard to the criteria for deciding whether or not re-charging should be allowed – in addition to charger-identification-based methods (i.e. the device queries the charger for a unique ID, or the charger provides it, perhaps modulated with the charging waveform) there are methods involving authentication based on a code provided to the original purchaser (when you plug in a charger the device has never ‘seen’ before, it asks you for a security code to prove that you are a legitimate user), remote disabling via connection to a server, or even geographically-based disabling (using GPS: if the device goes outside of a certain area, the charging function will be disabled).

All in all, this seems an odd patent. Apple’s (patent attorneys’) rather hyperbolic statement (Description, 0018) that:

These devices (e.g., portable electronic devices, mechanical toys) are generally valuable and/or may contain valuable data. Unfortunately, theft of more popular electronic devices such as the Apple iPod music-player has become a serious problem. In a few reported cases, owners of the Apple iPod themselves have been seriously injured or even murdered.

…is no doubt true to some extent, but if the desire is really to make a stolen iPod worthless, then I would have expected Apple to lock each device in total to a single user – not even allowing it to be powered up without authentication. Just applying the authentication to the charging method seems rather arbitrary. (It’s also interesting to see the description of “valuable data”: surely in the case that Apple is aware that a device has been stolen, it could provide the legitimate owner of the device with all his or her iTunes music again, since the marginal copying cost is zero. And if the stolen device no longer functions, the RIAA need not panic about ‘unauthorised’ copies existing! But I doubt that’s even entered into any of the thinking around this.)

Whether or not the motives of discouraging theft are honourable or worthwhile, there is the potential for this sort of measure to cause signficant inconvenience and frustration for users (and second-hand buyers, for example – if the device doesn’t come with the original charger or the authentication code) along with incurring extra costs, for little real ‘theft deterrent’ benefit. How long before the ‘security’ system is cracked? A couple of months after the device is released? At that point it will be worth stealing new iPods again.

(Many thanks to Michael O’Donnell of PDD for letting me know about this!)

Previously on the blog: Friend or foe? Battery authentication ICs

UPDATE: Freedom to Tinker has now picked up this story too, with some interesting commentary.

The right to click

English Heritage, officially the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, and funded by the taxpayer and by visitors to some of its properties, does a great deal of very good work in widening public appreciation of, and engagement with, history and the country’s heritage.

But its ViewFinder image gallery website* sadly falls into the trap of trying to restrict public engagement rather than make it easy. Yes, someone specified the old ‘right click disabled‘ policy:

English Heritage Viewfinder: right-click disabled
Screenshots of this page, launched from this page.

Now, the image in question – here’s a direct link – which happens to be an engraving of the former Datchet bridge**, in 1840 according to this page (with a colour image) is, even taking English Heritage’s “1860-1922” suggested date range, surely out of copyright, so presumably there cannot be any ‘legal’ question over ‘letting’ people save a copy (which is easiest to do by right-clicking on the most common operating systems and browsers). Using Javascript to remove the browser toolbars and menus also hides the ability to print the image for most users, presumably also deliberately.

Yes, of course, many (most?) readers of this post will know how to get around the no-right-click architecture of control, but you’re reading a technology blog; think of whom the site is presumably aimed at. It is supposed to be a resource to encourage public engagement with history and heritage. Most users will be computer-literate enough to know how to search and probably familiar with right-clicking, but not to mess round with selectively disabling Javascript. Why should they have to? Incidentally, if you do disable Javascript entirely, you can’t even view an enlarged image at all:

English Heritage Viewfinder

What actual use to the public, other than for momentary on-screen interest, is a photo archive website where nothing can be ‘done’ with the images? What is a child doing a local history project supposed to do? Order a print at £18.80 for each photo and then scan it in? Does English Heritage really think that the ability for someone to save or print or e-mail a low-resolution 72 dpi image is going to devalue or compete with the organisation in some way?

It’s ridiculous: such a short-sighted, narrow-mindset policy removes a significant proportion of the usefulness of the site. I don’t know whether the site developer did this with or without English Heritage’s instruction or cognizance (and it was in 2002, so perhaps different thinking would apply today), but it seems that no-one bothered to think through what an actual user might want to get from interacting with the site.

In fact, regardless of the fact that this particular image (as with many others on the site) is in the public domain, even the images which are still under copyright (or “© English Heritage.NMR” as the site puts it, NMR being the National Monuments Record) should, of course, be freely downloadable, printable, and do-whatever-you-want-able. Their acquisition, preservation and cataloguing were paid for by the public, and they should all be available as widely, and easily, as possible. As it is, I would call the website a waste of public money, since it does not appear to offer what most intended users would expect and need.

Still, at least the site’s not one giant bundle of Flash. That would make it marginally more hassle to extract the images.

*Partially funded by the Big Lottery Fund, and thus not entirely directly taxpayer-funded, unless one regards the National Lottery as an extra tax on the hopeful and desperate, which some commentators would.
**Almost exactly the spot where I’ve been testing a prototype radio-controlled toy for a client this very afternoon, in fact, though the bridge is long gone.

Friday quote: Fashion & convention

All heading the same way

L.J.K. Setright, the late motoring writer and commentator, self-taught mechanical engineer and all-round Renaissance Man, once wrote:

Fashion is a terrible fetter; convention, since it lasts longer, is even worse.

This was in an issue of Car, when it was still any good.

Setright wrote it in reference to car design, and the lack of progress thereof, but I think we can all see how applicable it is to many fields of endeavour, not just in technology but in society also. We should be very wary when fashions become conventions – or at least we should think them through before they become norms. And we should always leave ourselves a way out. (I’ve mentioned this in a few contexts before, perhaps with a little hyperbole.)

What almost became a norm – DRM’d music – is now apparently on the way out. DRM was a fashion, not a convention: still a fetter, but one which can ultimately be shaken off, as it should be.

The great thing about fashions, of course, is that they can be talked into existence, and talked out of existence too. Fashions are not architecture.

No photography allowed

A couple of recent stories on photography of certain items being ‘banned’ – Cory Doctorow on a Magritte exhibition’s hypocrisy, and Jen Graves on a sculpture of which “photography is prohibited” – highlight what makes me tense up and want to scream about so much of the ‘intellectual property debate’: photons are no more regulable than bits. And bits, like knowledge itself, aren’t regulable either (Cory again). Just as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me, so he who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine (Jefferson, via Scott Carpenter).

So this sign available from ACID (Anti-Copying In Design) made me laugh with astonishment, and cringe a little:

No photography allowed, from ACID
Image from an ACID leaflet, “You wouldn’t say that copying was the sincerest form of flattery if it cost you your business”. The sign doesn’t seem to be shown on ACID’s Deterrent Products online store.

I understand what ACID is trying to do, and unlike most anti-copying initiatives, ACID is set up specifically to protect the little guy rather than enormous intransigent oligarchies. ACID’s sample legal agreements and advice for freelancers on dealing with clients, registering designs, etc, are great initiatives and I’m sure they’ve been a fantastic help to a lot of young designer-makers.

But a sign ‘banning’ photography at exhibitions? At design exhibitions where new aesthetic ideas are the primary reason for most visitors attending? That seems hopelessly naïve, akin to a child defensively wrapping his or her arm around a piece of work to stop the kid at the next desk copying what’s being written, but then pleading with teacher to put it up on the wall.

And I would have thought, to be honest, that “with phone cameras your ideas… [being] sent globally within seconds” is more likely to lead to instant fame and international recognition for the designer on sites such as Cool Hunting, We Make Money Not Art, or Core77 than (presumably unauthorised) “mass production”. But maybe I’m wrong: I’m sure you’ll let me know!

Most young designers are desperate for exposure. I know every design exhibition I’ve shown stuff at (not many, to be fair), I’ve been delighted when someone photographs my work. ACID’s sign also raises the question, of course, whether when someone displaying the sign actually sells a piece of work, it comes with a label attached telling the purchaser than he or she may not photograph it, or show it to friends. Wouldn’t that be a logical extension?

P.S. We’ve looked before at actual technologies to ‘prevent’ photography, such as Georgia Tech’s CCD-blinder and Hewlett-Packard’s “remote image degradation” device (in the wider context of “plugging the analogue hole”). As I replied to a commenter on the Georgia Tech story:

It won’t be too long (20 years?) before photographic (eidetic) memory and computers start to overlap (or even interface), to some extent, even if it’s only a refinement of something like the Sensecam. What’s going to happen then? If I can ‘print out’ anything I’ve ever seen, on a whim, why will I worry about what anyone else thinks?