It’s hard to make the stereotypes fit.

Microsoft is reviled as the big monopoly. I don’t want to suggest that Microsoft is a huggable teddy bear, but it’s worth noting that much of its success comes from the work of thousands and thousands of hardware and software partners invited to build products on Microsoft technology. When Microsoft puts on an event to roll out a new product, there are hundreds of partners invited to speak at the event and set up their tables outside the auditorium and send their products into stores.

Apple is praised for being independent and open and encouraging creativity. It’s an odd reputation, because Apple works tirelessly to create locked-down environments that no one is allowed to change or contribute to. When Apple announces its new products, no one stands onstage with Steve Jobs.

There are three current examples, each disturbing in its own way.

(1) The iPhone is locked to AT&T, the least appealing cell phone provider in the world. When the first iPhones shipped, a few people went to work attempting to find a way to reprogram the SIM card in the phone and unlock it so it could be used with a different carrier. Within a couple of months, methods were appearing to unlock an iPhone using a bit of software – no screwdriver necessary.

This is intolerable to Apple, for reasons that aren’t clear. “This is a constant cat-and-mouse game,” Steve Jobs said today. “[P]eople are going to try and break in and it’s our job to try and stop them.”

Imagine! A cell phone that can be used with a carrier of your choice! The horror, the horror! Except, it’s not really very horrible, is it? If you pay hundreds of dollars for a cell phone, shouldn’t you be able to decide what carrier to sign up with?

(2) When Apple introduced its updated iPod line recently, it announced that ring tones would be available from iTunes for the iPhone. The prices were shocking, but the whole ringtone industry baffles me so I’m not in a good position to judge.

A few people quickly discovered an easy way to create their own ringtones and upload them to their iPhones, without paying iTunes for the privilege.

Two days later, Apple forced an update of iTunes to version 7.4.1, killing that method of creating a ringtone from your own music.

The next day, another method was circulated that still worked despite the new restrictions.

Yesterday, ten days later, Apple forced down iTunes 7.4.2, which again disrupted the known ways of getting ringtones onto an iPhone. Only this time the workaround was discovered literally within an hour or two. Presumably Apple is frantically working on iTunes version 7.4.3.

It’s fair for Apple to make some money from the hot ringtone business. But why should you be prevented from making a ringtone of your choice from music you own, using software you choose, and loading it onto your phone?

(3) Most iPod owners use iTunes to manage their music libraries. It’s adequate but not getting any better; at one time iTunes was designed to make it easy to manage your media, but now it’s increasingly being used only as a vehicle to expose you to advertising.

Although Apple never cooperated, it was possible for third parties to build software that would work with an iPod. Some people built programs to run on their Linux computers that would sync their iPods, or wanted to use WinAmp or other Windows software instead of iTunes. My favorite music software, J River Media Center, works beautifully with iPods, so I was able to buy an iPod and continue using a single program for all things related to my music library.

When Apple updated the iPod product line and the first units shipped, frustrated purchasers learned that Apple had changed the iPod database in an attempt to prevent any software from communicating with an iPod other than iTunes. There was no technical reason or benefit from the change; it was solely aimed at blocking access by other software. Here’s where influential blogger Cory Doctorow weighed in on Apple’s unfair tactics.

It was a completely unnecessary move. Most people will use iTunes anyway and Apple will have a crack at their purchasing power. What is the point of slapping the handful of people who run Linux, or prefer a different bit of software?

As of a couple of days ago, the database changes had been cracked. J River Media Center has already delivered a new build of their software that will work with the new iPods.

Apple’s lust for control may lead it to push out iTunes version 7.4.4 and try to lock down the iPod database again. Or perhaps have its lawyers write threatening DMCA letters to intimidate the software developers who have the gall to want to satisfy their users and help Apple market its devices.

It’s very odd. Although I like the iPod line a lot, I have some cranky opinions about software and iTunes is not going on my computer. My next player may not be an iPod after all.

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