2. iPhone and the App Store
It's sad but inescapable: If you want a sexy iPhone in the United States, you also have to date its ugly stepsister, AT&T. Your alternatives? Take your chances with iPhone unlocking software (and hope that Apple doesn't release an OS update that turns the phone into a brick), or move to Europe, where you have a somewhat broader choice of carriers. Locked (though heavily subsidized) phones are an unfortunate fact of life in this country, a situation not unique to the iPhone.
The iPhone's software shop, on the other hand, is a dictatorship. Apps for the iPhone are available only from the App Store in iTunes. And North Korea's Kim Jong-il has nothing on the people who run the App Store, whose decisions about what apps may be sold seem more capricious as time goes on. Apps that duplicate (or improve upon) features available from Apple or AT&T are strictly forbidden--hence the ongoing controversy over Google Voice, an application that would allow VoIP calls over the iPhone, if only Apple would approve it.
iPhone owners have had the option of jailbreaking the handset, which allows them to install apps not approved by Apple while voiding the warranty (see the dangers of unlocking, above). With changes that Apple has made to the iPhone 3GS, however, jailbreaking may no longer be possible.
Apple claims that jailbreaking the iPhone violates its copyrights and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Digital-rights organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation beg to differ.
The EFF's Fred von Lohman argues that iPhone owners should be free to tinker with their phones, especially when they can add capabilities that App Store programs don't yet provide. He notes that "the courts have long recognized that copying software while reverse-engineering is a fair use when done for purposes of fostering interoperability with independently created software, a body of law that Apple conveniently fails to mention."
By comparison, things are slightly different for the open-source mobile OS Google Android, whose owners can buy apps from multiple online stores (including AppVee, Handango, and MobiHand). Android apps also undergo an approval process; Google says about 1 percent of apps are rejected. Still, according to Wired, several iPhone developers booted from the App Store are opting for the friendlier environs of Google's mobile OS, which some say allow them to be freer with both the OS code and the phone features when they're creating apps.
With each major mobile platform developing its own app stores, more differences may emerge. As its competitors grow in popularity, the iPhone App Store may have to relax some of its restrictions or risk driving away more developers.
3. Mac Computers and Mac OS
Ever since the Second Coming (aka the return of Steve Jobs to Apple in 1997), the Mac has been a tightly controlled, closed system. The result? High prices and limits on the options you can get with Mac hardware.
For example, you still can't buy an Apple machine with support for Blu-ray drives. And although Apple has cut prices--in part due to some aggressive Microsoft marketing--the average Mac still costs some $900 more than the average Windows PC, according to the latest figures from The NPD Group's retail tracking service.
"The Mac showcases the traditional lock-in method of tying software to hardware," says Rob Enderle, principal analyst with The Enderle Group. "This is the act of making the OS and certain core software inexpensive or free, and subsidizing it by high-margin hardware. It's a classic misdirection, and it works as long as there isn't a third party who can compete with a more reasonably priced package (which is what Psystar is trying to do)."
Psystar's attempts to market hardware capable of running the Mac OS have resulted in an ongoing legal battle between it and Apple; few observers give Psystar much chance of winning that fight.
The main advantage to the marriage of Apple hardware and software is "a unified source of service," notes Jake Widman, who has written about Apple for two decades, most recently for bMighty's blogs. "You made everything in this box; you fix it."
Reopening the Mac OS to third-party manufacturers, as Apple did in the mid-1990s, might lower prices but increase support pain, Widman adds. "I recently compared the cost of a Psystar with that of a Mini (and the old Mini, before the recent bump), and ended up wondering how much hassle one was willing to put up with in order to save $120."
Has the closed Apple ecosystem resulted in more-reliable, better-supported systems? Apple has traditionally fared well in consumer hardware-reliability surveys (including PC World's). This year, however, Apple fell to a distant second behind netbook maker Asus in reliability data collected by Rescuecom, an independent customer-support vendor. Recent glitches with the Snow Leopard OS and performance problems with the newly introduced iMacs also suggest that the Mac platform could be losing its purported quality advantage.