Blown To Bits

Your iPhone is not your iPhone

Monday, July 14th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Khalil Gibran’s wonderful poem begins, “Your children are not your children.” They are of your lineage, that is, but you can’t control them like possessions.

I thought of this reading the woes iPhone buyers. From the beginning, Apple intended the iPhone to be usable only with AT&T cellular service. Steve Jobs was not amused when people figured out how to hack the phone so it could be used with other cellular service providers. So when he released the new iPhone, he made it harder to change the device’s intended functioning. You have to activate it while he (or his appointed representative at your friendly Apple store) is watching. Turns out the activation software was problematic and it’s been a very frustrating experience for many buyers, such as this one. Long lines in the store, people sent home and told to try from there, and discovering that they still can’t get the thing working. (There are many similar stories.)

Much can be said about Apple having — temporarily, no doubt — turned an engineering marvel into a public relations disaster. But if you look beyond the surface, there is an important philosophical point here. iPhone buyers thought they were buying a phone, and most people think that when you buy something, you should be able to do what you want with it. What Apple actually wants is to tether the phone to the company, making sure it gets used only in the ways Apple wants. You aren’t really buying a phone at the Apple store, because when you walk out of the store you are dragging the tether behind you, and Apple can jerk the tether any time it wants.

As long as things work perfectly and as the customer expects, tethering may be a sound business strategy. But in this fiasco Apple has bluntly reminded iPhone buyers that the thing they think they have bought isn’t really theirs. This larger point may ultimately cost Apple.

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