Apple’s Handcuffed Devices

Years ago, Verizon was my mobile phone carrier. I eventually switched to Cingular/AT&T. My decision had nothing to do with the iPhone and its exclusive relationship with AT&T. I made the switch long before the iPhone came out. And it certainly wasn’t because I thought that my phone’s reception would be better with AT&T.

No, the reason was that I had become fed up with Verizon’s deliberate crippling of its phones. The final straw was when Bluetooth became available for phones. I read numerous articles about how, via Bluetooth, you could upload your own ringtones and wallpaper to your phone, bypassing the cost and limitations of the carrier’s options. When my phone contract came up for renewal, I went to my local Verizon dealer, eager to get one of these new Bluetooth phones. I was quickly disappointed to learn that the file transfer feature had been disabled in all of Verizon’s Bluetooth phones.

Although they did not publicly state a reason, the rationale behind Verizon’s actions was clear: they didn’t want to risk losing revenue from their very profitable ringtone business. So Verizon disabled the Bluetooth file transfer feature.

This sort of thing irks me. It would be like finding that your new television contains all the hardware needed to display an HD picture, but that (for some perceived financial gain) the manufacturer added a doohickey that prevented the HD display. Annoying. Frustrating.

Happily, I had an alternative. The very next week, I switched to AT&T. It was an especially easy decision — because AT&T offered the exact same Motorola phone I had intended to get at Verizon, except AT&T left the Bluetooth feature enabled.

I have never looked back.

I don’t know how many other people switched from Verizon for similar reasons, but I hope it was enough to cause Verizon to rethink its strategy. In the end, it must have had some effect, because Verizon appears to have given up on this handcuffing of its phones.

The Apple TV

I was reminded of this Verizon incident the other day, while updating my wireless network hardware. I was replacing an old b/g AirPort Express with a new 802.11n Express. The Express is in the same location as my Apple TV. My only need for the Express is to provide a wireless connection to my similarly-situated TiVo (yes, there is a degree of overkill here!).

At one point, noticing the Ethernet port on my Apple TV, I wondered: “Wouldn’t it be great if I could plug the TiVo into the Apple TV and have it connect back to my Internet router?” That way I wouldn’t need the Express at all. I searched the Web to see if this was even remotely possible. It wasn’t. Admittedly, this doesn’t quite qualify as a deliberate crippling of a feature. It’s more like a failure to enable one that could have easily been included. But it’s close.

You don’t have to go much farther, however, to find a perfect example of deliberate crippling: the Apple TV’s USB port. Ever since the Apple TV was released, users have been speculating about the function of this port. Apple claims it is only for “service use” and has no end user function at all. Too bad. Because it would be great, for example, to connect an external drive to the Apple TV — so as to expand the device’s disk storage space (as you can do with a TiVo). It turns out that the USB port can (sort of) be used for this function (and more!), but only if you are willing to do a software hack (as I covered in this article and as is similarly covered here). In other words, Apple deliberately crippled the USB port so that it is unable to perform otherwise useful functions that the hardware fully supports.

My reaction to the Apple TV USB port is no different than to the Verizon phone. It irks me. I understand that Apple (or any company making similar decisions) makes these decisions for one primary reason: to make more money. For example, if I could have connected my TiVo to my Apple TV, Apple might have lost the sale of an AirPort Express. Similarly, if Apple opened up the Apple TV’s USB port, they risk losing sales of Mac minis. And so it goes. There is also the matter of modifying the software to support the unblocked hardware function; this takes time and (again) money.

To be clear: I fully concede that Apple is within its legal rights to make these decisions. There isn’t even anything unethical about these decisions. I simply don’t approve of them. I also happen to believe that these sorts of decisions are usually short-sighted. Any potential sales gains are offset by the ill will that is generated among its customers and ultimately by decreased sales of the crippled device itself. That’s why, after some period of time, these restrictions are usually abandoned — and announced as exciting “new features.”

The Apple TV has, so far, been at best a modest success. It’s hard to argue that they could not sell more Apple TVs by making the device more capable — and ultimately gain greater profits. Even if I am wrong, it’s still an easy call for end users. What is best for Apple’s bottom line is not always what is best for its customers. There is no doubt that end users would be better served by having these more capable devices.

Apple has one advantage over Verizon: I can’t switch to a different vendor and get the “uncrippled” version of the exact same product. So I tend to stick with Apple and grumble about what I don’t like. This does not provide much motivation for Apple to change its ways.

The iPhone and iPad

The situation becomes more complicated when we turn to the iPhone and iPad. Once again, I want to focus on Bluetooth and USB.

As I have written on numerous occasions (such as in this article), Apple has blocked much of the Bluetooth capability of the iPhone. The iPhone may be the only Bluetooth-capable mobile phone that does not work with Apple’s own Mac OS X Bluetooth System Preferences for file sharing. Until very recently, the only thing you could do with Bluetooth on an iPhone was connect to a headset.

Many third-party game developers would welcome the opportunity to offer Bluetooth game controllers for the iPhone and iPad. No dice. Why? Because Apple won’t allow it.

And remember Internet Tethering? It’s been almost a year since this feature has been available — and still AT&T refuses to enable it for either Bluetooth or USB. As to when it may arrive, AT&T is still repeating the same non-answer that they have been giving from the beginning.

However, there are recent indications that things may be shifting for the better — if only in millimeters.

Regarding Bluetooth, you can connect a Bluetooth keyboard to an iPad, with the expectation that this capability will be extended to the iPhone in iPhone OS 4.0.

As for USB, I was surprised to discover the hidden capabilities of the iPad Camera Connection Kit. As its name implies, the only official purpose of the kit is to allow you to import pictures from your digital camera to your iPad. The surprise is that it can do more.

The kit includes two components: (1) a Camera Connector, which essentially adds a USB port to the iPad and (2) an SD card reader. Despite its name, the “Camera Connector” works with more devices than just cameras. It is more of a general purpose USB port. As detailed in this TidBITS article, the Connector works with USB headphones, headsets and external speakers; USB microphones; and low-power USB keyboards. But not with USB drives. And you cannot export data to any connected USB device, such as an SD card.

Just because the Kit can do these things, it doesn’t mean that Apple approves. A recent Apple support article states: “Apple does not recommend or support using the iPad Camera Connector with devices other than cameras.” What a surprise! I would not be shocked to find that, rather than addressing the potential problems described in the support article, Apple blocks these “unsupported” features altogether in iPhone OS 4.0.

These restrictions have not seemed to hurt Apple so far — so there is no reason to expect any big changes ahead. Apparently, whether or not I am irked has little effect on Apple. So be it. Apple does so many things right, I can afford to be irked by the few things it does wrong.

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