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Apple must open up its 'crystal prison': report

Breaking chains
Devin Coldewey / msnbc.com

As the devices we use become more powerful, companies like Apple and Microsoft are exerting more control over how we use them. There is an increasing backlash against restrictions placed on how we can use our PCs and mobile phones, and the cause is being taken up by pundits of ever higher visibility. Recently Steve Wozniak, one of Apple's founding members, called for the company to open up its software ecosystem, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a free speech and consumer and advocacy organization, has echoed that sentiment with an article that calls Apple's devices and operating systems a "crystal prison."

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBCUniversal.)

For many users, the walls of this prison never seem to close in. There are thousands upon thousands of apps and games, useful features, and frequent updates from Apple. But for a growing minority (something which has a habit of eventually becoming a majority), the restrictions are worrying.

The EFF describes many of these deliberate limitations in detail, but here are some of the headline complaints — not limited to Apple:

  • Apple's iOS disallows the installation of applications from anywhere but the official store, and the upcoming version of OS X discourages it strongly.
  • Every app in must be individually approved by Apple, sometimes with seemingly arbitrary conditions.
  • Users are unable to personalize the look and feel of their iPhone or iPad, and cannot improve or modify security settings like firewalls, VPNs or multiple users.
  • People who have installed custom software on their iPhones are no longer covered under warranty for hardware defects and things like cracked screens.
  • Microsoft is restricting some manufacturers from allowing the installation of any operating system but Windows 8 on certain hardware.
  • Carriers like AT&T insist on locking down phones with custom software (including invasive items like Carrier IQ) and "bloatware" apps that can't be removed.

These practices are good for the companies' bottom line, but they also erode trust and prevent some users from doing what they want to do with the devices they own. 

The EFF suggests that Apple, being the pioneer in this area of walled gardens and crystal prisons, should be the one to lead people out. Android has shown that a platform can be open to tinkering while still being fairly secure and liked by casual users, and Apple has the clout and industry cred to help set a new standard.

Today, things like alternate OSes and third-party apps are only a matter of concern to power users and hackers. But as more people come to rely on these devices for a growing variety of purposes, from music and movies to video calls and professional functions, these restrictions will become more and more visible.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website is coldewey.cc.