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Shuffle’s Hardware DRM Not DRM at All…Or is It?

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features_key_20090311 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.

7 Responses to “Shuffle’s Hardware DRM Not DRM at All…Or is It?”

  1. Not only headphones, but it had made all accessories and peripherals obsolete, because you cannot plug it into an aux input.

    For instance, you can’t connect a 1/8th” stereo cable from your car stereo to your Shuffle. You’d need a special cable that doesn’t even exist yet.

    I forecast a boom in eBay sales of 2nd Gen iPod shuffles.

  2. Yes, it’s all about control. Apple wants their product to exist with its halo intact after a year of use by real people. In order to do that, they’ve set up the program to license the necessary electronics to people who – in return for boasting “Made for iPod” – are prepared to conform to Apple’s quality standards.

    People who don’t want to adhere to Apple’s standards are free to manufacture compatible hardware, but they won’t be able to use the “Made for iPod” trademark.

    I’m an Apple user. The reason I use Apple products is that they’re generally made to a higher quality standard than the rest of the market, and Apple pays a lot of attention to UI and basic looks.

    I don’t want my Apple experience cheapened by some third-rate company manufacturing junk headphones passing them off as “Made for iPod” thankyouverymuch.

    Can people just get over the initial hysteria and realise that Apple is about control, but in this case it’s not the market that they’re trying to control, it’s the halo around their products that they’re trying to control.

    I’m a control freak and a snob, and I appreciate the efforts Apple goes to in order to ensure that my Apple “experience” is as pleasant as possible.

  3. Perhaps what we need is for a clever group of industrial designers to come up with a new way to connect headsets. I’ve seen shortwave radios from the 1930s that use larger versions of the same design we’re using on today’s complex gadgetry. After some eighty years, it just might be time for something new.

    The new design would slip in easily without looking closely, much like the current design. But it would also lock in place and unlock easily or under force. My current iPod headphones disconnect much too easily. Phone-like ethernet connectors are much too hard to disconnect. We need something in between.

    It’d also allow for one connector to adapt to a wide array of roles. Insert mono (i.e. two-way radio or cellular) headphones in a stereo gadget, and both sides would carry sound. Insert stereo headphones in a mono device like a cell phone and again both sides work.

    It there are controls, the controls follow some standard and adapt to a new role. Insert an iPod shuttle headphone in a two-way radio, and the volume control still works and the stop/start button becomes a transmit button. Headphones with mikes would work in devices that don’t have mikes and vice-versa. Every headphone would not do everything a device might need, but it would do everything it could with finesse.

    Get this design taken up as a standard, and the designers could charge a tiny fraction of a cent royalty on each one and still become very, very comfortable. And the rest of us would love them and be delighted to see an end to all the various headphones that are wasting our money, cluttering our drawers and leaving us confused.

    And while they are working on that, this very clever group could come up with a brilliant MagSafe-like replacement for the clunky, out-sized and downright-dangerous-on-a-laptop-when-someone-walks-by Ethernet connector. It’s big, it’s ugly, and the hard-to-disconnect design was no doubt intended as a “feature” in the early 1980s, when computers meant desktops maintained by IP professionals. It’s ill-adapted for today’s grab-and-go laptop world.

    –Mike Perry, Seattle

  4. If Apple is to be defended (and I’m not sure thats the case) here, it’s that if you’re trying to get fancy with a Shuffle, you fail. Use its stupid buds or get yourself a real iPod.

  5. So Apple controlling their intellectual property (the iPod brand name) is some how evil? This is good business. And they even said they will tolerate third party headphones that offer control functionality even if they do not apply for a “Made for iPod” license. I don’t see why everyone’s panties are in a bunch.

    You should get your panties in a bunch about the price of a ridiculously low functionality mp3 player being $80, when, as I said before, you could stop by walmart and pick up one that fits in your pocket or clips on your shirt just fine for about $10.

  6. Don’t forget…Apple’s number one concernin new design is always the customer’s experience. Unique Hardware design is not usually meant as a proprietary hinderance to third party product (unlike Sony, et. al.). I remember asking an Apple tech why I couldn’t “just” use my camcorder’s existing red-white-yellow (rca) to mini-jack cable with an iPod Video… I wondered aloud to him if Apple just wanted to bilk me out of an extra $20-30 for “their” cable…His response was that If I had wanted that ability to swap in a third-party cable, I also wanted a bigger iPod. In order to fit the internal components into the design, they had to make things themselves. So I benefit from the positives of Apple by means of their design. At times I also simply have to keep “Apples” with “Apples” to get that benefit!

  7. This is another step that tightens Apple’s control on consumers. In the last year, Apple’s shifting strategies have me convinced that Apple is now less concerned with customer satisfaction (via openness and compatibility) than with corporate financials. While I am now concerned enough to explore alternative operating systems and platforms, the sad fact is that I haven’t found anything remotely as usable. *sigh* It’s a trap.