The Great Locking Debate: Reconsidering Smartphone Limitations

you buy something, is it yours? Don’t
dismiss that question as a facile, rhetorical question. I want you to really think about it for a
second. Do you own everything that you have bought outright?

I’d imagine
the no-duh, knee-jerk response to that question would be yes. Admit it, there’s no shame. It’s a mildly ridiculous question in the
first place; of course we own everything we buy. And tied up in the definition of ownership is
agency: We, as the owners, are permitted to do whatever we want with our
material possessions. That does not mean
that using those possessions cannot get us into trouble. Most likely, you will get arrested if you soup
up your car, which you own, drink alcohol, which you own, then drive the car
into the swimming pool of a house, which you do not own. However, neither
the alcohol nor the car (even with its modifications) will inherently stop
you from using your property in that way or any other way that you see
fit. Such restrictions are assumed to be
left up to your better judgment, although society provides penalties for lapses in
that judgment.

there is one category of items that you incontrovertibly own for which you do not act as the responsible party. These items impose restrictions on what you can and cannot do, and generally
circumvent the socially accepted idea that you are responsible for how you use
your property, and also for any damage that may result. These devices,
moreover, are some of the more expensive and useful devices in the modern
world, which many rely on for daily life. These devices are our smartphones. I will also lump game consoles into the same category, since the restrictions
applied to both are strikingly similar in nature.

you see, are becoming more and more locked-down by the carriers and
manufacturers that provide them. Smartphone security and cryptography has become a multimillion-dollar
industry, employing dozens of programmers whose sole job is to come up with
new ways to keep people from being able to make unauthorized modifications to
their phones’ software and hardware.

be fair, most of the population is probably unaware of these meticulously designed restrictions. They would never
dream of modifying their device and thus never experience any of the
consequences. This does not mean that
the general consumer should be ignorant of the restrictions inherent on their
device, however. As School House Rock
taught us in the 1970s, knowledge is power. So let’s empower ourselves with some knowledge.

idea that a smartphone should be a locked environment, impossible to modify,
stems from—who else?—the late, great Steve Jobs. A stickler for top-down integration at all
levels of software and hardware, Jobs sought, in the development of the iPhone,
to abstract every piece of the system away from the user, for the sake of “simplicity.” Pre-certified stable
applications, reviewed and vetted by Apple, would run on a device that the user
would know nothing about—it would “just work” without the need to navigate
menus, open files, install drivers, or any of the normal inconveniences of a
computer operating system. A nice idea
in theory, perhaps, but it essentially precluded the idea of third-party
development for the phone. Doubtless,
nobody remembers this fact, but the first third-party apps on the
iPhone were, in fact, hacks, in flagrant violation of the terms of
service. Jobs even went so far as to
wipe all “infracting” apps from the phone with silent software updates—a policy
that angered many would-be developers who wanted to use the phone for more than
just checking the weather and managing their calendars.

the capitalist nature of our lives encouraged Jobs to allow third-party content
on his phone, but the mindset remained: Phones were walled gardens, which
should not be modified for our own good. Again, a nice idea in concept, but consider for a second: What other
expensive device that we all own follows any sort of similar model? We, as consumers, are allowed to break
whatever we want on our computers, and install whatever operating systems we
care to. We can modify our cars to
include any performance enhancements we want (legally, of course). Yet our access to the power and features of
our smartphones is restricted? Please.

the United States Supreme Court has consistently ruled in favor of this more
rational viewpoint. Modifiers of phone
software are safe, in general, from any legal action, so long as their
modifications are not used for piracy or malicious hacking. Yet this has not deterred hardware
manufacturers. Instead of accepting that
a certain subset who want to break
their phones will break their phones,
the manufacturers have instead decided to engage in a hopeless game of
cat-and-mouse, patching flaws discovered by independent developers and blocking
phone modifications time and time again—only to be foiled a few months later
by the next brilliant mind who has more time to devote to cracking smartphone
security. In the mean time, the power users are annoyed, the common users
confused, and millions of dollars in research and development have been poured down the drain.

not let consumers simply do what they please with their phones and let them
eat the consequences if they get caught, then? This question is still mostly unanswered. Carriers give the excuse that it might “compromise their network,” but this is no different than the already disproved
Apple argument. Perhaps
it’s the ghostly influence of Steve Jobs. Perhaps it’s a misguided sense of paternalism. Perhaps it’s a giant NSA conspiracy. Either way, it’s a costly, pointless game
that needs to stop. I’m not even going
to end the column with a witticism this time. It’s stupid, expensive, and hurts everybody involved.

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