A Public Service for the FSF

by Charles Miller on July 28, 2008

To save the FSF, its supporters, and anyone who might want to go into a Genius Bar this week some valuable time, I thought I would answer their questions in advance.

1. "Why do all developers have to submit their applications to Apple before they can be loaded onto an iPhone?"

Because Apple have always wanted to control the end-to-end experience of their products. This has been a very successful tactic for them in the past decade, especially with the symbiotic relationship between iPod and iTunes. As the saying goes: when you're on a good thing...

They also get a cut of the proceeds of application sales, which helps them make money. They are by no means the first company to subsidise a platform this way: game-console makers have been doing it for decades. While making money may sound evil -- cue images of Scrooge McDuck diving through mountains of cash -- it's what you need to do to run a company, and Apple have had a lot of success so far through paying the people who develop their products.

Developers knew about all of this before they made the decision to develop for the platform, and were more than free to "vote with their keyboards" and develop instead for a platform with a more open policy. They still are.

I'm on record as calling a similar programme "completely fucking lame", and to be honest it puts me off developing for the iPhone that I would have to rely on Apple to distribute anything I wrote. I can, however, understand why Apple is doing it enough that I don't need to go to a Genius Bar and ask some low-level tech support guy to explain it to me.

2. "Why does iTunes still contain so much DRM-laden music?"

Because to distribute music without DRM, they need permission from the record labels. Where labels have offered DRM-free music, Apple have made it available. Unfortunately, some labels do not want to ship music online without DRM. Others are are playing political games, giving DRM-free music to other stores such as Amazon's to try to weaken Apple's market share and improve their bargaining position on issues like pricing.

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?"

My girlfriend and I have had a running joke the last few weeks that whenever we use our iPhones, a little dot lights up on a map in Steve Jobs' secret lair. If this is an issue for you, I would suggest you stop using cell phones entirely, as your cell phone provider can get a pretty good idea of your location even without GPS.

For the GPS question, though, the answer is: you can't be sure. Then again you can't be sure of this for any consumer-grade GPS device, and this hasn't stopped in-car navigation systems from being wildly popular, not to mention the plethora of phones that had GPS before the iPhone. At some point you have to assume that your cell phone wasn't designed by Dr Evil.

How can you be sure the GPS in a Free Software phone isn't being used without your permission? Only by understanding every line of code that runs on it, and compiling that code yourself. (And doing the same with your compiler, and the compiler that compiled your compiler...)

4. "If Jobs really wants to see open formats, why doesn't the iPhone play Ogg Vorbis, Ogg Theora video and FLAC?"

Partly because there is no body offering patent indemnity for the use of such formats, and doing so would paint a huge target on Apple's back for any submarine patent holder who was waiting for one of the big players to adopt the format.

Mostly because nobody but the FSF cares. The cost of supporting any feature is always non-zero, and there's no benefit to Apple in paying that cost in this case.

5. "Last question. Why can the iPhone 3G only be activated by Apple and AT&T?"

Because Apple has an exclusivity contract with AT&T. Duh. Why can OpenMoko phones only be operated by people with tiny, pointy fingers?

More seriously, it's the well-documented price Apple had to pay to bring the first iPhone to market, one that has been widely credited with changing the balance of power between handset developers and the phone companies. In countries where they did not make such a deal, the 3G iPhone is available from multiple, (nominally) competing carriers.

It seems, unfortunately, that the FSF have worked out what Greenpeace worked out a few years ago. Apple gets a lot of attention. Therefore the best way to get attention is to talk about Apple.

Previously: Advice to public speakers: using microphones

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