Becoming a Software Criminal

Big companies like AT&T, Apple, and Microsoft encourage their users to break the rules, because they make unreasonable rules. Not only unreasonable, but hidden until it's too late. This post will describe two such cases.

I became an iPhone criminal when I started my trip to New Zealand. I had spent over $400 on my iPhone 3GS and wanted to use it on my trip. However, the iPhone is locked to AT&T, and you cannot use it with an overseas carrier without unlocking the phone. This reasonable usage required that I go outside the law to jailbreak then unlock the phone.

I became a Windows criminal when I switched to Mac, looking to move my legitamate Windows software to VMWare Fusion. This use is apparently prohibited by the Microsoft license agreement. And it's causing me problems right now because for some reason my Windows XP image is asking for activation, again. I did not know this, but if you buy a new PC with Windows on it, that copy of Windows is in some way tied to the physical computer: if you trash that PC and keep the hard-drive, and put it in a new PC, you are in violation of the Microsoft license. Or, in my case, if you trash the PC and attempt to run the hard-drive image in a virtual machine, you are in violation of the license.

And in both cases, because I've gone outside the law, it's more likely that I will continue to do so. In the iPhone case, I've installed Cydia, which is a gateway to all kinds of licit and illicit iPhone applications. So far I've only used it to unlock my phone and install some handy developer software (such as Mobile Terminal), but who knows? In the Windows case, I've had to hunt down an illegal, cracked copy of Windows even though I already have a legitimate copy. In the course of doing so, I've found a lot of other illegal software, and frankly I'm tempted to try some of it out. I haven't yet, but who knows?

I begin to understand the marijuana "gateway drug" argument more clearly. It's true: if you have to break the law to do something harmless (like smoke pot) then you are more likely to break the law to do something less harmless (like smoke crack). The one action puts you in closer proximity to the latter action.

In truth these are two examples of a much bigger problem: egregiously complex terms placed on an apparently simple transaction. You may think you're paying for one thing, but in truth you're getting much less, subject to incomprehensible restrictions. This is particularly a problem with loans, credit, and insurance, but increasingly electronic devices and software. There needs to be some legally imposed upper-limit on the complexity of terms! Complexity breeds disagreement, but even worse it shifts the balance of power to the party that understands the terms the best, which is usually the party that imposed the terms, which is the manufacturer or vendor. Ordinarily I would be in favor of letting the market sort this out, but I'm afraid this is a fundamental flaw in the market which is only now reaching fruition thanks to technology. Technology is making it possible to enforce these complex rules - the only reason it hasn't always been this way in every industry since the industrial revolution is that the cost of enforcement has been a limiting factor in all but a few contract types.

1 comment:

Code Monkey said...

I'm not making a comment one way or another on the overarching topic of the blog, but in the case of hte first example I don't believe you needed to jailbreak your iPhone.

In fact, during my trip to Australia this past March, I simply paid a modest fee to Apple, and it worked just fine. AT&T have agreements with carriers across the world for such usage and it worked pretty flawlessly switching over to whichever local carrier had the best signal in any given location.