You can't buy an iPhone

19th March 2018

I remember when it became public knowledge that Apple throttles iPhone processor performance when the battery is weak, to stop the phone crashing. I found it bizarre that people were saying that Apple had done something wrong. It's not unethical to write and sell software that does a certain thing. Let's analyse what people were really upset about.

Here are some things that I expect in a trade, such as the purchase of a phone:

  1. both parties know what they're exchanging
  2. both parties consent to the trade because they will both benefit from it
  3. when the items are exchanged, both parties waive ownership of their item and gain ownership of the other's.

I assert that two of these principals are violated in the purchase of an iPhone.

  1. Apple keeps all the code of their software secret, to stop people knowing what it does. This violates the principal of trade that both parties know what they're getting. It also has the effect that, because Apple wasn't expecting people to know what the software does, they didn't consider how a certain feature might be perceived by the phone's users.
  2. Apple handicaps their devices so that they can only run Apple software, thus enforcing control over the device even after it's sold. This violates the principal of both parties waiving ownership of the item and gaining ownership of the other. You don't own something if you can't control it.

So really the problem is that people thought they were trading money for a phone, but actually they were paying for a service. Like a service, iPhone is often payed for on a contract. And like a service, the service provider remains in control. Complaining that Apple slows iPhones after your 2-year contract ends is like complaining that your taxi driver took you to your home but wouldn't come in for a cup of tea.

So the real person at fault is the user. By buying a computer but not bothering to care what software it runs, you payed money for something that you can never really own. If you want to own your phone you must buy one that allows you to change the software, and furthermore must install software that respects your rights. I've written a piece about how to do this.

I don't want this article to be perceived as a defence of Apple. Apple is the richest company in the world and yet they have forced labour in their factories. And it is remarkable the lengths they go to stop people maintaining devices out of warranty. But if you buy something that's handicapped to run only proprietary software you can hardly then complain that the software doesn't do what you want. If you want control of your software you won't buy an iPhone.

It always amazes me how the ancient message of the Free Software Foundation continues to be pertinent even in 2018. Their focus on software freedom may seem overly specific, but it is actually relevant to the majority of discussions about the ethics of technology.