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Much has been made about the new iPod shuffle’s neat new features, like voiceover narration to make up for the lack of a display, and its incredibly small form factor. Much more, perhaps, has been made about the limitations the new form factor presents, since it lacks physical controls on the device itself, and also requires headphones specifically designed for the platform because of the unique control scheme it uses instead.
That unique control scheme recently raised even more eyebrows when it appeared as though Apple had not only forced customers to seek out specially designed headphones for use with the new device, but had also actually built-in a chip that would force third-party accessory manufacturers to pay them a licensing fee in order to be able to make headphones that would work with the new shuffle. When BoingBoing Gadgets took apart a brand new Shuffle, they found a unique chip soldered to the remote, from which a third wire was connected to the same ring on the mini-jack plug that governs the iPod’s controls.
Apple maintains that the chip is not hardware DRM, as many speculated immediately after the discovery. Instead, they claim the chip is just to ensure proper functioning of the headset-based controls, and that the specs of the device are made available to any hardware manufacturer that obtains a peripheral license from them (the one that allows manufacturers to use the iconic “Made for iPod” sticker). They acknowledge that clone chips will likely follow, and will be tolerated, although those manufacturers won’t get to officially claim that their devices are “Made for iPod.”
It may not be DRM, but it is all about control. Basically, if manufacturers care about having their device work properly, they have to go to Apple, hat in hand, and declare their intentions. This gives Apple the ability to scrutinize, and makes sure that they remain a necessary point of contact even in the aftermarket life of their products. Personally, I’m uncomfortable with any move that eschews open standards in favor of something that adds steps, extra manufacturing or unnecessary redesign, and therefore cost, to peripheral production. Apple is possibly the worst for this, and I’m actually hoping that shuffle sales give them cause to reconsider in the future.