How does a tech company spell suicide in 2009? D-R-M. Word is going around that the masters of the universe at Apple have embedded a DRM-type chip into the headphones of the new iPod Shuffle. That means that without that chip -- either in an adapter or a new pair of headphones -- you can barely control your new device and the new VoiceOver feature is rendered obsolete.
The assertion came from iLounge during its recent review of the new iPod Shuffle. The blog, famous for its detailed product reviews, doesn't say how it knows Apple included an authentication chip in the new headphones, only that it has. A further investigation by BoingBoing discovered a mystery chip named 8A83E3 buried in the Apple earbuds' architecture that may be the authentication chip.
The reaction to this rumor has been mild surprise. Some have argued this policy has been good for Apple financially and may lead to higher quality headphones from third-party vendors. However, I have to say, if the rumor is true then this is a horrible path for Apple to tread. By forcing consumers to constantly buy something as commonplace as headphones every time a new feature is added will only serve to upset the public and distance Apple from its dedicated base of consumers.
More troubling is a report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that suggests Apple may be embracing the authentication model after it pushed other industries to abandon copy protection. The EFF points out that several of Apple's core products have some sort of DRM or authentication chip embedded in them, including iPods, the iPhone, OSX, and video ports on the new MacBooks. In its report, the EFF accuses Apple of trying to "shove competitors to the fringes and wrest control out of the hands of users."
In other words, by forcing manufacturers to license Apple's authentication technology to create third-party products, Apple inflates prices and reduces choice, while increasing its own profits. Now, I don't want to suggest that Apple doesn't have the right to make money; of course it does. But its methods should not put undue pressure on consumers to purchase only from a "walled garden" of products -- no matter how beautiful that garden may be.
In 2007, Steve Jobs wrote a letter entitled "Thoughts on Music," which turned the music industry on its ear. In that letter Jobs saw a rose-colored world free from copy protection where "any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players." Jobs then went on to state that, "this is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat." Apple has promoted DRM-free music. So if DRM-free music is the best alternative for consumers, why isn't DRM-free hardware? Why should you be forced to switch one method of DRM protection for another?
I want to reiterate that this mystery chip in the Apple earbuds may not be an authentication chip. However, considering the DRM protections in some of Apple's other products, the rumor is not outside of the realm of possibility. If it is true, then it's a very bad idea and I hope Apple reconsiders.
This story, "Apple Suicide: Obsessive Control" was originally published by PCWorld.