Who Owns the Device?

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.