Topic: Science & Technology

iPhone Ethics
(10/2/2007)

First Apple annoyed iPhone buyers who said it was unethical of the company to lower the price of the uber-phone so soon after releasing it. The customers were full of beans, ethically speaking; a company has no obligation to keep a price for any length of time if business considerations dictate a change. Now there's a thornier controversy.

You bought an iPhone, one of those cool, expensive executive toys that combines the functions of a phone with a PC, complete with snazzy graphics. But being a techno-geek, you add all sorts of software to the phone that Apple, its maker, never approved. Well, why not? It's your phone!

The problem is that Apple has a lucrative deal with AT&T that guarantees that the AT&T network is the only one iPhone users will use. So iPhone's latest software update eliminated unauthorized programs installed to allow a user to use a non- AT&T network. It also wiped out other user-installed programs, and in many cases killed the phone. The techno-geeks are furious…and out about 600 bucks.

"We warned you," says Apple, and they did. iPhone owners were cautioned that installing network-unlocking software could cause the phone to become "permanently inoperable when a future Apple-supplied iPhone software update is installed." In other words, useless except as a prop or a paperweight, or in techno-speak: bricked.

The New York Times quoted blogger Brian Lam, who opined, "It seems like Apple is going way too far; I'd call it uncharacteristically evil." People assumed that Apple would try to stop people from unlocking the phones, as it had an obligation to AT&T, Apple's exclusive partner for the iPhone. But they didn't expect this.

At least release software that can restore the dead phone to its previous unaltered state, they implore! Shouldn't Apple react according to the popular morality of the web, in which rights are only rights until you are forced to accommodate so many self-righteous people trying to get around them that they aren't rights any more? Even now, the Times reports, hackers are hard at work trying to attack Apple's software update. It's a challenge. It's fun. And bad old Apple will have its hands full enforcing the AT&T deal.

Recognize this? It's the cheating mindset. The iPhone purchasers knew what they could and couldn't do under the terms of the contract of purchase. They violated the terms anyway, thinking they could get away with it. They got caught, and now have consequences: bricked phones. They think they are the victims, and use that self-serving resentment to justify trying to find new and better ways to cheat.

Apple may yet cave in to this mentality; it is the darling of techno-geeks, and the company may be reluctant to annoy such a lucrative market. But ethically, the company has done nothing wrong but try to live up to its contract terms with a business partner, a concept its customers clearly need to learn.

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