The iPhone Jailbreak Debate

Should consumers be allowed to install any application they want on their iPhones? Or will the flood of lower-quality apps, which will undoubtedly follow, ruin the experience?

When it comes to the iPhone, Apple is one of the most protective companies in the industry, perhaps even overprotective, according to a recent ruling by the United States Copyright Office.

Earlier this month, the Library of Congress, which handles exceptions to copyright laws, rightfully struck down Apple’s policy of penalizing consumers who “jailbreak,” or modify, their iPhones to run unauthorized third-party apps.

Before the ruling, Apple could void the warranties of consumers who “cracked” their devices, in addition to having the right to levy a $2,500 fine.

It’s still possible, and quite likely, that Apple will apply technical countermeasures to prevent the practice. But, for now, they won’t be able to sue consumers who alter their software.

The debate at hand is essentially a question of quality or quantity, and whether strict control is a small price to pay for order.

Many tech savvy users feel they shouldn’t be limited to what Apple says they can run, especially after they paid for the device. And they look for new ways to circumvent Apple’s locks on the software. But as soon as a method is released, Apple updates its operating system and relocks it — repeating the process in an “arms race” to patch and exploit security holes.

Apple claims the reason for doing so is to ensure a “great experience with the iPhone.” By controlling the pipeline of “approved” apps, which are sold though its iTunes store, the company can ensure a certain level of quality and safety.

And to Apple’s credit, it shows.

In comparison, rival Google’s Android Market, which is regulated, but not as tightly as iTunes, comes with a lot of clutter — with some useful, and many not so useful apps. And Apple would like to have you believe that taking it a step further, and opening up the platform, could be a recipe for something far worse.

For now, both Apple and Google are still figuring it out. And it’s a fine line to walk. But Apple seems to still believe that control is necessary every step of the way, whereas Google believes in openness.

The Android versus iPhone competition that’s heating up seems eerily similar to a battle Apple once fought with Microsoft decades ago — between Macs and PCs and whether they should be open or closed. And if history is any indication, Apple might want to reverse its position, or it may suffer a similar fate.

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