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End of the geek affair? I think not

Apple have come in for a lot of criticism recently over the iPhone.  First for reducing the price so soon after launching it, and then for issuing firmware updates that have done bad things to phones if people did naughty things that Apple didn't like.

Jack Schofield in The Guardian wonders if the iPhone could mark the end of the geek affair with Apple:

The teaser ads posted in New York showed an open lock and a headline: either "The best devices have no limits" or "Phones should be open to anything". They must have mystified a few people, but Apple fans had no doubt what they were about: Nokia was exploiting the furore over last week's iPhone firmware update. This not only plugged a bunch of security holes, it wiped out users' unapproved applications, and "bricked" some phones hacked to unlock them from AT&T.

How galling to see Nokia promoting its N Series phones with lines like: "Open to applications. Open to widgets. Open to anything. So go ahead and load it up. What it does is up to you."

But there was no deceit on Apple's part. Right from the beginning, its chief executive Steve Jobs had told Newsweek: "You don't want your phone to be an open platform," and that AT&T "doesn't want to see their West Coast network go down because some application messed up". (Except that AT&T encourages people to run apps on its other smart phones.)

It seems remarkable that so many people could either fail to get the message, or could somehow convince themselves that Apple didn't really mean it. The answer, I think, is that Apple has been a personal computer company for 30 years, and everybody knows you can run whatever applications you want on your own computer. The iPhone was launched at a computer event (MacWorld), it runs a computer operating system (OS X) and it does computer things like web browsing. How could it not be a computer?

Yes, but what is a computer?  A PSP has a web browser built-in, so is that a computer?  Many phones use operating systems of one type or another.  Of course you can look inside and say that it has the potential to do this or that - but at your own risk.      

Yet people do try to hack almost every device imaginable - particularly games consoles, which are also clearly marketed as "closed" devices on which you can only run specific games.  Indeed, the business model for games consoles is that the hardware is sold at a loss and the software is highly profitable.  The iPhone business model is similar - you have to subscribe to a plan from a specific carrier (AT&T in the States, O2 in the UK) and Apple get a share of that money.  So of course Apple will try to prevent people "unlocking" the phone.      

I'd have thought that the hackers will be back before long with another way of unlocking the iPhone, and Apple will release another firmware upgrade (and so on).  Doesn't the same thing happen with the PSP?  Has it become less attractive as a result?

[...] Apple [..] has already dropped the Computer from its name, and is becoming a consumer electronics company. Yes, it still sells Mac Pro tower systems that can be expanded at will, but the bulk of Apple's computer sales are of relatively closed portables and the iMac, which is basically a large portable with the keyboard detached. The Mac mini and Apple TV designs, all the iPods and the iPhone show a company increasingly in love with sealed boxes designed for consumers, not for geeks.

Of course, this was always Steve Jobs's way. The original 1984 Mac - which succeeded Steve Wozniak's "open" Apple II design - was a sealed box with no expansion slots. It was intended to be an appliance, like a Maytag washing machine or drier. "And have you ever heard of a Maytag users group?" quipped Jobs (

There's nothing wrong with this idea, of course: the number of ordinary consumers is very much bigger than the number of people who want to tinker with their systems. But Jobs may just have gone a bit too far in locking down the iPhone. This could mark the beginning of the end of the geek love affair with Apple.

Now I'm getting confused.  If Apple have been making well-designed "sealed box" products for 20+ years, why would anyone be surprised by what they've done with the iPhone?  It's a consumer product that is sold with an airtime contract, and if you don't like that then don't buy one.  People are buying them, and some of those customers will be "geeks" (whatever that means) who will know exactly what they are getting.


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