Apple may Think Different, but wants users to all Think Alike

I recall a few years back, when computer experts experimenting with the original xBox discovered a method by which they could replace a piece of hardware within the unit and transform it from mere gaming machine to a full-featured computer. Folks began to manufacture and distribute the replacement chip, and laypeople could modify their xBoxes to create a powerful computer for a fraction of the cost of building such a machine from component parts. Microsoft’s strategy included taking a hit in profit on the hardware of the console, betting that they would more than recover the loss in the form of licensing software games, and they were not pleased about the popularity of this modification. Microsoft got litigious, claiming that the modifications were illegal manipulation of their intellectual property (i.e. the insides of that xBox); defendants claimed that since they had paid to acquire the unit, the hardware was completely their property to modify however they pleased. It was awkward for a while, as Microsoft sought to protect their empire while alienating their supporters.

I thought of this story not in relationship to any current weirdness with Microsoft, but rather with my currently uneasy relationship with Apple Inc. You see, I want an iPhone, but I frankly don’t give a damn about the phone function itself. While I am willing to pay the hefty price tag for what is allegedly the world’s greatest iPod/mobile internet/email/PDA device (with functionality over WiFi), I am not willing to pay a dime to AT&T for service (let alone the $59 x 24 months = $1,416 for the most meager minute allotments).

I currently live way off the grid in a rural community. Mobile phone service doesn’t work for miles from here, and I venture “off the mountain” as rarely as possible. We do have WiFi in the central area of our community, but I’m not lugging my laptop satchel around each day to check my email and update Twitter. I would really value a sleek handheld experience, and my iPAQ barely does the job, and makes it a painful experience to boot. I’m a devoted Apple user from back when OS7 was more stable than Windows 95, but don’t fall neatly into the Apple user demographic. And now I’m feeling that if I don’t fit the mold, Apple could care less about my business or my seamless end-to-end user experience.

There are, of course, a variety of hacks available that will bypass the necessity of having a two-year contract with AT&T, allowing me (or you) to have all of the allegedly blissful handheld computer functionality without needing to have a monthly hole in my pocket for mediocre mobile phone service that I can’t use. However, if Apple gets wise to these hacks or views them as unacceptable, they can simply bundle a firmware update within a mandatory OS update and turn my $600 investment into a brick.

I have an iPod, too. An older one who’s hard drive failed after only one year of use (living in a rural community can do that to delicate electronics). I replaced the drive myself, and the repaired iPod seemed to be working fine, until I downloaded an iPod update and restored the unit – at which point iTunes observes that the iPod is corrupted. I try to restore again, and learn that I must be connected to the internet in order to do this. I connect to the ‘net and get a generic error that the latest iPod software cannot be downloaded. No error code, no explanation. Just doesn’t work. After communicating with an Apple database. Of course, Apple’s online support mentions nothing of this particular error.

Apple’s seamless end-to-end user experience is superb when a member of the average demographic uses it precisely how Steve Jobs wants it to be used. When deviated more than slightly (i.e. don’t have regular access to internet, don’t want or need cellular phone service, doing repairs one’s self) the system breaks completely, leaving a loyal customer dangling pants-down in the breeze. One thing I love so much about computers is how flexible they are – my various laptop and handheld computers can be configured to be made best use of depending on my environment and situation. However it seems that Apple’s baby projects (quickly surpassing the value of simply designing and manufacturing excellent personal computers) are quite well designed to not be flexible beyond a narrow range of projected living environments and financial intentions.

The crux of this is that Apple seems to have found a solution to the trouble that Microsoft had with the original xBox: by ensuring that they control the entire user experience – and by collecting tremendous data on each and every iPod and iPhone each time it is inevitably synchronized with iTunes – they have absolute power to reduce to a brick any device that is determined to not fit within Apple’s narrow range of tolerance to customization or modification.

My iPod is ‘corrupted’ without any explanation. My only options? Buy a new one, or switch platforms. I’m weighing my options carefully before attempting any deviations on an iPhone under Brother Jobs’ watchful eye.