The MacOS App Store: starting down the slippery slope

As recently reported by Crunchgear, Apple likes the entire App Store concept so much it’s now rolling it out in the next version of MacOS X. It’s hardly an unsurprising move, however, that doesn’t make it any less dangerous from a software freedom standpoint.

While it appears for now that Apple will continue to allow software to be installed on MacOS X as before, I suspect it will only be a matter of time before this quietly disappears and MacOS becomes just like iOS (the iPhone/iPod/iPad operating system), where everything must be approved by Apple, and truly free software (as in freedom) is impossible. This is one more step down the slippery slope which started with the App Store in the iPhone.

Until and unless Apple proves by words and actions it is committed to the freedom of its users to use its products in ways not arbitrarily limited by Apple itself, I still maintain that Apple is the biggest threat to the future of computing freedom. The specific actions I am referring to would include the following, at minimum:

  1. Apple offers alternatives to the App Store on its “non-computer” products (iPod, iPhone, iPad) where such alternatives do not currently exist, without the requirement of “jailbreaking” those devices.
  2. Evidence of “jailbreaking” is no longer considered by Apple for the purpose of warranty validity while it is still necessary to run non-Apple-approved applications.
  3. The license for future versions of the iOS SDK is made friendlier to the free software development model. (I will clarify this in a later post when I get a full copy of the license agreement.) Ideally, Apple would release enough documentation to let anyone write an iOS replacement and load it onto any device which ships with iOS, and make the license changes retroactive.

Were Apple to do these things, I believe the world would be a better place for freedom. The fact that Apple will probably refuse to do any of this, speaks volumes about the true motives of Apple as a company and the character of such people as Steve Jobs. With this latest attack on software freedom by Apple, there has never been a worse time to buy Apple products.

Engadget editor shows us the “restrictions” in Digital Restrictions Management

I know, two stories from the same source. But this one hit one of my hot buttons a bit too hard to just skip.

Paul Miller, senior associate editor for Engadget recently posted about a nasty surprise that his Apple iPad had waiting for him. Instead of quoting the entire story I’ll do my best to summarize in bullet-point format:

  • Paul gets stuck in an airport with his iPad and buys a movie for $15 to pass the time (since his laptop battery is dead, the iPad was his only choice).
  • The download only gets 2/3 of the way completed before Paul has to board his flight.
  • Luckily his flight has in-flight WiFi. Unluckily for him, the port iTunes needs to access to download the movie is blocked (I have no idea how iTunes works so I’m just using the same terminology Paul did).
  • Paul finishes downloading the movie at home, and decides the iPad’s small screen is too small to truly enjoy the film. So Paul connects his iPad to his TV.

And… bam! The “Restrictions” part of Digital Restrictions Management kick in, and the iPad throws up “Cannot Play Movie / The connected display is not authorized to play protected movies.” Not surprisingly, Paul’s next move is to fire up a BitTorrent client and download an unrestricted copy of the same movie, which I would assume works fine.

The unfortunate part of Paul’s post is that he has bought into the misleading and loaded usage of terms such as “steal” and “theft” for copyright infringement. Unfortunately, that’s a much bigger problem and it’s not going to be solved overnight, or probably even this year. But that’s another rant for another day. That, and the fact he gets bitten by DRM on a device built entirely around DRM, that is a brick until it’s connected once to a copy of iTunes on Windows or MacOS, is an unfortunate non-surprise to the readers of this blog. (Oh, yes, you read that right! The iPad will not work without being hooked to a computer with iTunes at least once! More on that in a future entry, maybe.)

The reality is that the MPAA is overdue to “get it” like the RIAA did. The RIAA finally figured out that it made more sense to sell unprotected music files via Amazon and even iTunes than it did to keep using digital locks to try to keep the honest people honest. It’s a step in the right direction, of course those are still MP3 and most record companies still aren’t embracing WAV/FLAC downloads (which I could understand being a little more expensive per track, but which I would actually buy).

But the MPAA has held onto “lock it down with more DRM” like a stubborn mule. Why, I don’t know. Movie producers and studios are finally grasping the concept of digital cinema, but a good many productions still originate on 35mm film. The new age is the digital age, an age of non-scarcity, where we can have as many copies as we want. DRM is a failure. Shame on you, MPAA; it’s time to let your obsession with DRM go.

Intel’s silicon shenanigans

As reported by Engadget,, Intel is experimenting with a somewhat novel CPU upgrade scheme. They want to charge you to unlock features of your CPU that are already there.

Now, it’s not unheard of for CPUs to have cores or cache memory disabled at the factory. It’s acceptable, perhaps even expected, that a chip manufacturer would disable a defective portion of a chip before shipping it out. This is in fact how maximum clock speeds are determined: a chip that cannot run reliably at, say, 2.0 GHz is tested again at 1.9 GHz, then 1.8 GHz, etc. down to a minimum acceptable speed for the class of CPU until the highest speed is found at which that particular CPU chip will function. It’s similar with cache and cores: quad-core chips with two defective cores will have two of the cores disabled and become dual-core chips instead, and a chip with a defect in part of the L2 cache will have that portion disabled.

The difference is that Intel is shipping out fully working CPUs and using a DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) scheme to lock them down, holding the full functionality for ransom. This is not how responsible companies operate. A few of the comments on the Engadget blog entry already indicate that Intel has lost goodwill with this rather cowardly move.

What to do? I personally recommend avoiding the purchase of the DRM-crippled CPU chips in question. It may not be practical to buy your next PC without a single Intel chip in it, but I certainly won’t blame you if you do. Intel’s “just testing it out… in a few select markets for now.” Let’s all grade this test a big fat F.

Taking a slice out of the DRM dragon

As recently reported in chron.com’s Techblog, the Librarian of Congress has approved a few important exceptions to the force of law afforded to digital restrictions management (DRM). This ruling has given the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) grounds to claim victory.

Most of these are long overdue. There were six items, I’m only going to touch on four of them.

The most-noted is that jailbreaking an iPhone, or for that matter, any similar mobile telephone or computing device, is not a DMCA violation now. There’s considerable doubt on whether it was a DMCA violation to begin with, but of course, it’s kind of moot now. This decision, while important, does not even come close to solving the issues with DRM on the iPhone. Apple can still refuse to honor the warranty for jailbroken iPhones and almost certainly will. Play Apple’s game, follow Apple’s rules, and bow to Apple’s whims. There’s still a very real risk that jailbreaking one’s iPhone will sooner or later “brick” it, and there are other laws which may apply to the DRM on an iPhone besides copyright. This ruling would appear at first glance to not necessarily apply to the iPad.

Another victory, which I consider the most important, is for cracking DVD copy protection (Content Scrambling System, or CSS, not to be confused with Cascading Style Sheets). The exceptions granted are for educational uses at colleges and universities, documentary filmmaking, and noncommercial videos. Curiously, the educational exception leaves out elementary and secondary schools. I doubt this was intentional, but either way, the big change is that tools such as DeCSS have substantial non-infringing uses now.

Yet another important victory in this ruling relates to ebooks which have disabled the read-aloud function via DRM. The fact this ruling had to be made to begin with shows just how far the draconian abuse of DRM can go. Maybe this will get the attention of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and yes, even Apple.

Finally, it’s now legally permissible to get around old dongle-based restrictions when the dongle is damaged, obsolete, and no longer being made. I’m surprised any software companies would use such obnoxious and environmentally unfriendly license restriction enforcement techniques today. Yet I do remember seeing reference to USB dongles some years ago, so it’s quite likely they are still being deployed in 2010.

A little sidenode here: my first experience with dongle-based license restriction enforcement is rather humorous. I remember an old golf game called Leader Board for my Atari 1200XL which came with such a device. It took me about five minutes in BASIC to figure out what it did (it appeared as a joystick with both the up and down switches shorted). Having noted this, I was able to rig up a broken joystick to mimic the dongle long after I could no longer find it.

Save the date: A Day Against DRM, 2010 May 04

DefectiveByDesign.org recently published an article entitled “The decade of DRM.” Included among the events were four events prior to 2000 that would set the stage for the introduction and proliferation of DRM (digital restrictions management), arguably one of the biggest steps backward for computing freedom ever.

Even as far back as 2000, a lot of devices that we do not ordinarily think of as computers are in fact exactly that. Television sets, VCRs, CD players, DVD players, portable audio players, mobile phones, copiers, printers, scanners, fax machines, and the list goes on; all of these have computers (microprocessor-based logic) built into them somewhere. In 1980, this was unheard of, but now, it’s a fact of life. I still remember my late grandfather’s rants about these new cars with “all this computer [excrement]” that made them much more difficult to fix.

We have yet to change one thing, and it’s probably one thing that should not be changed. Computers are still, by themselves, incredibly dumb. One would think this, by itself, would discourage widespread adoption of DRM. Sadly, this is not the case.

The recording industry (RIAA) has realized DRM is not in their best interests. However movies, e-books, and cable television continue to be saddled with obnoxious restrictions. It’s often said that locks only keep honest people honest, and this is the same with DRM which is just a cyberspace equivalent of a fancy padlock. Those who do not respect copyright or draconian laws like the DMCA will crack the DRM and share anyway. CSS (not the stylesheet language, the DVD encryption method) was cracked very on in the lifespan of the DVD format. The Blu-Ray AACS key has been changed several times, and it just gets cracked again and again. Copies of these movies, as well as scans of books in PDF form, are easily obtainable on peer-to-peer file sharing networks and sites.

Meanwhile, people who have legitimately paid for video and audio recordings get unwelcome surprises when license servers disappear and they try to play recordings they “own” on a new computer. (The term “own” and “ownership” is kind of pointless with DRM, as even if one still has a copy of the recording, it can be rendered useless on an arbitrary basis. It’s like having a CD, DVD, or book that can just vanish or turn to dust without warning.) Don’t believe me? Ask these baseball fans who got bitten by MLB’s change in DRM licensing servers. Or the many people who bought into Microsoft’s PlaysForSure DRM scheme.

Perhaps the worst example, however, is when Amazon reached in to thousands of Kindle e-book readers it sold and erased copies of George Orwell’s book 1984, back in 2009 July. The content of the book itself makes the message even more chilling than it would otherwise have been.

DRM is an anti-social technology and I feel it is out of place in a world where “social media” is the new buzzword. The sooner it dies, the better.