Apple's control issues come at the expense of its customers

Here's a brilliant PR move: Wreck the product your customers have bought, at great expense, and then improved.

This, of course, is precisely what Apple has done with some of its most ardent customers. They are the people who bought the iPhone and then had the temerity to make it work better.

Despite the many admirable features the iPhone boasts (there are some truly breakthrough ideas in the device), I'd been advising people to look elsewhere for a smart phone in any case. Apple designed control-freakish limitations into the product - such as locking it to a single carrier in each country where it's sold and locking out most third-party software developers.

Here's a brilliant PR move: Wreck the product your customers have bought, at great expense, and then improved.

Smart technologists immediately went to work to fix what Apple had deliberately broken. They helped users by unlocking the phone so that it would work with other carriers. They also made it possible to add third-party software that filled in some of the gaps.

Apple warned that it would not countenance such independence. And then, in a software update, the company followed through by wrecking all functionality in some of the phones that had been successfully improved by their owners.

Owners? Think again. Apple is essentially maintaining that its customers are not permitted to fully control what they've purchased, at least if they want to stay current with new Apple software.

Apple isn't alone in taking this kind of stance; more and more products contain software that determines part of the function. Apple is only the most prominent.

Consider an analogy. Let's say a car company told potential new customers that, henceforth, its vehicles would be permitted to operate only with Brand X gas and that both companies were putting special computer chips into their respective products - gas pumps and car nozzles - that would allow only this combination. Let's further say a mechanic disabled the nozzle so you could drive the car with gas from Brand Y. And then, when you took the car to the dealer to be serviced, the dealer disabled your engine on the grounds that you'd violated the terms of the original contract.

Some of Apple's glazed-eye devotees keep making excuses for it, and they have one semi-legitimate point. That is, no one is being forced to buy the phone.

And, indeed, Apple may well have the legal right to turn customers' improved phones into little bricks. But that doesn't make its actions right in any other way.

Apple's marketing skills are normally prodigious by any measure. But the recent success seems to have heightened the company's equally exceptional arrogance - and this situation shows what low regard the company has for its best customers.

So far, this doesn't seem to have made much of a dent in Apple's image. Maybe the majority of consumers truly are mere sheep. And maybe, as we've seen in the yawns at Apple's corporate complicity in the stock-options scandal, all that matters is business success.

I suspect otherwise. Apple will pay long-term costs for its behavior. I hope they will be steep.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People and director of the Center for Citizen Media (

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