Opinion: Psystar Ruling Could Have Set Precedent for Upgrading Your Mac

This past Friday, your future ability to upgrade your Mac may have been significantly restricted. Psystar, the company that tried to create “open” Macs by running OS X on non-Apple hardware, suffered a quick defeat in its effort against Apple’s OS license restrictions.

No question this was a long shot and Psystar was going for the Hail Mary. Nonetheless, Apple’s arguments and victory in the case could have a chilling effect on any modification of Apple hardware and software. Will your next Mac be as locked down as the iPhone?

We euphemistically call gaining the ability to install any software on a iPhone “jailbreaking.” This allows you full administrative access to your iPhone to modify the software as necessary for your own use. You already purchased the iPhone hardware and a license for the Apple software necessary to run your iPhone–but are restricted in its use? Apple locks you out of making certain changes to your iPhone; every aspect of iPhone usage is controlled by Apple, yet Apple’s fickle and inconsistent App Store policies further complicate matters and virtually beg people to jailbreak their iPhone.

Unlike with the iPhone, we can pretty much do want we want on our Macintosh computers. Installation of hardware and software is unrestricted and Apple exercises no control over how we use our Macs. We can circumvent functions in the operating system and enhance it without a problem. We are virtually unrestricted in upgrading or enhancing our Macs. Manufacturers can write kernel extensions to modify the operating system so their hardware can work. Don’t like the Apple monitor? No problem, go out and buy your own. Apple charging too much for RAM? Go out and buy third-party RAM. Want to add new functionality to your Mac? Buy and install third-party software that enhances the operating system.

The Psystar ruling reminds us that we use our Macs only with the consent of, and the pleasure of, Apple. Even though you “own” your Mac, your ability to use it can be modified, restricted or revoked by Apple without recourse. As Macs grow in market share and more third-party developers come to the table, we’ll be presented with options for our Macs that Apple’s own team can hardly imagine. If Apple starts losing revenue due to such enhancements, Apple can simply disable it. Any attempt to circumvent Apple’s restrictions could be seen as a violation of the DMCA. For example, to increase sales on iTunes, could Hulu be disabled by a future Apple OS? Legally, yes. We are one Automatic Software Update away from an Apple Kill Switch for our Mac.

Conspiracy Theory? Think Again

Before you blow this off as a conspiracy theory, note that similar actions have happened other times in Mac history. The most memorable was back in March 2001, when Apple issued a firmware update that disabled most third-party RAM. Apple RAM worked just fine, but other RAM was suddenly considered “out of spec.” Historians will debate whether this was deliberate or accidental. Eventually it all worked out when manufacturers swapped out RAM and other users avoided the update. In 1999, Apple disabled G4 upgrade cards in Blue and White G3s via another firmware updates. The original iMac had the ability to support a floppy drive, but later Apple purposefully disabled that function. Previous versions of iLife only worked with Apple-supported optical media.

Obviously, Apple is going to vehemently fight to prevent non-licensed Apple clones, and while it may be in the right here, the arguments used could be applied to any modification to the Macintosh OS, especially those used to enable non-Apple hardware to work with OS X. While I agree that the odds are low of waking up one morning and finding your Mac unable to boot due to a “DMCA violation,” Apple consistently argues it is its right to do so and it has exercised that right in the past. How very Microsoft of Apple. Just ask XBox 360 owners.

The iPhone is proof of its desire to lock the consumer out of any unapproved modifications. What’s stopping Apple from doing this with our Macs? Financial interest? Goodwill? You tell me.

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