The latest round of exemptions to the DMCA, announced in July by the U.S. Copyright Office, gave limited approval to the jailbreaking and unlocking of mobile devices. But could these practices lead to mobile phones becoming commodities?
I was a happy camper after the Library of Congress' Copyright Office
published an updated list of exemptions from the DMCA
July 26; the one that
will perhaps be the most important to business users is an official blessing of
the practice of jailbreaking or unlocking mobile phones.
I'm old-fashioned about many things; I like to get several years' use out of
my electronic devices.
I'm also not terribly amused when I've paid to own a
device, but the manufacturer insists on controlling how I use it.
That's a "No Sale" in my book. If how I use something is subject
to the whims of its maker, then I'm not buying it, I'm leasing it. As some of
you may recall from negotiating with your local auto dealer, leasing is
promoted as a way of lowering payments when compared with outright purchase,
and at the end of the lease, the dealer takes the car back and is responsible
for its disposal or resale, leaving us free to acquire a shiny new ride.
Leasing is an attractive option for computer equipment, as well. But for some
reason, mobile phone vendors got the idea that they can sell a device outright,
while restricting what is done with it after it leaves the store.
If I were still an IT manager, I think I'd feel even more strongly about
this. I remember the bad old days where buying a computer system was a bigger
commitment than getting married, because you depended on the company that sold
you the equipment to support the software and fix any problems, and heaven help
you if a disk drive failed.
The IT revolution of the 1990s was supposed to fix all of that. Instead of
buying a "system," you bought a standard configuration of hardware
and then you licensed some fairly well-understood software for a networking
platform, and the basic applications didn't change much from one user group to
the next. Of course, you still had a few specialty applications that required
handholding from their publishers, but for the most part, the IT universe was
pretty much commodity-based by the turn of the millennium.
Then we got into the world of smartphones. What we call
"featurephones" hadn't been much of a challenge for IT, except in
terms of keeping the address books in the phone consistent with those on the
desktop computer. But smartphones were another proposition altogether, and in
many ways I got the sense over the last few years that vendors such as Apple
were trying to take us back to the old days of proprietary hardware and
software, with their walled gardens and application marketplaces.
True, walled gardens are safe refuges from the outside world, but they can
also be terribly stifling if you're unable to leave when you want to. That's
why jailbreaking or unlocking mobile phones isn't even a traffic ticket in my
world-I haven't found it necessary to take these steps on my own behalf, but
there are many valid reasons for doing so.
I'll start with the obvious one: It's mine, I paid for it and I'll do what I
want with it. If I choose to install unapproved software, I know that I'm
forgoing any warranty protection, and I'm accepting the risk that I might turn
my device into an expensive paperweight. Being able to do as you please with
your gadgets is supposed to be one of the prerogatives of adulthood; it's one
that I assert whenever it suits me.
This is the approach to mobile devices that I hope IT managers will be able
to take in the years to come. If the exemption for jailbreaking and unlocking
stays in place-these are reviewed every three years, according to the
provisions of the DMCA-mobile phones could become commodities, just as file
servers and desktops did a dozen years ago.