Apple’s rollout of the iPhone and updated iPod line generated impressive buzz, giving the impression that Apple is an unstoppable force. At the same time, though, Apple’s efforts to lock down its control over its users created uneasiness.
Two things happened today that are worth watching in case Apple’s base turns out to be more fragile than we suspect.
The first involves the possibility that Apple may kill a bunch of iPhones soon.
The iPhone arrived locked to AT&T, which frustrated early purchasers more than they were willing to admit. Tempers were frayed when Apple dropped the price on the iPhone by $200 within sixty days after its launch, leaving the early adopters feeling used; the hundred dollar credit in the Apple store did not completely erase those feelings. Bill Maher made fun of Apple; Steve Wozniak lambasted the company. As noted earlier, some people reacted by finding ways to unlock the iPhone so it could be used with a different cell phone carrier.
Apple has now made a formal announcement that a firmware update for the iPhone next week “will likely result” in unlocked phones turning into useless paperweights with voided warranties. There’s some possibility that this would be illegal, so it may not happen that way. But Apple might decide to turn expensive phones into bricks – phones that are in the hands of a very vocal community that currently supports Apple but who could turn vicious in a heartbeat.
The second involves unhappiness with iTunes.
Apple is increasingly insistent on locking its devices to iTunes software. The iPhone and iTouch cannot be used with any other software. Apple attempted to lock the iPods to iTunes, although for the moment that protection has been broken. And iTunes is not aging well; the insistent advertising is drowning out everything else in the program. As people become more familiar with media files, it becomes more irritating that iTunes only supports a small number of formats for music and video, and the DRM restrictions in Apple’s native formats are making people nuts.
Enter Amazon, which has today opened its store for downloadable music. It’s all in MP3 format, completely free of DRM restrictions! It’s recorded at a high bit rate for premium sound quality. Prices are slightly cheaper than iTunes. Since there are so many iTunes users, Amazon supplies software to ensure that downloaded music is added to the iTunes library. This is pretty appealing stuff! Here’s a New York Times article about the Amazon store, and here’s a longer comparison of the technical features.
Apple is not likely to be brought down in a hurry, but there might be a backlash coming. (Update 09/26 2:50pm: here’s an example of the kind of critical coverage that Apple doesn’t normally receive.) New competitors are finally showing off devices that are worthy alternatives to the iPod/iTouch, especially for handheld video – Archos and Cowon in particular. Perhaps Apple can be slowed down after all.