Gear: June 2009 Archives

 

June 26, 2009

Panasonic is improving their cameras to prevent you from installing third-party battery packs:
Panasonic Digital Cameras now include a technology that can identify a genuine Panasonic battery. For the protection of our customers Panasonic developed this technology after it was discovered that some aftermarket 3rd party batteries do not meet the rigid safety standards Panasonic uses.

Some of these aftermarket batteries are not equipped with internal protective devices to guard against overcharging, internal heating and short circuit. If these aftermarket battery packs were used, it could lead to an accident causing damage to your camera or personal injury.

Panasonic's Digital Camera firmware has been updated on this website to detect these aftermarket 3rd party batteries so such serious safety issues can be avoided.

Protecting the customer is basically the standard rationale that manufacturers use for this kind of lockin technology. However, one can't help noticing that the third party batteries are dramatically cheaper than the Panasonic standard batteries, so I think you could be forgiven for thinking that they might have a bit of another interest here. [See Rescorla, Savage, Shacham and Spies from the CRYPTO 2008 Rump Session for another example of this.] And of course, if you want whatever bug fixes, improvements, etc. Panasonic added to the new firmware, you have to take the DRM as well.

A few questions seem worth asking:

  • Does Panasonic consider any third party batteries safe or can you only use Panasonic brand?
  • Does Panasonic give you some mechanism for overriding the the firmware and using a "dangerous" battery if you want to?

If the answer to these questions is "yes", then this looks like a genuine case of consumer protection. Otherwise, you should at least suspect monopoly maintenance.

UPDATE: Fixed citation. I had the wrong rump session talk.

 

June 16, 2009

Congress is reported to be concerned about cell phone exclusivity agreements between manufacturers and carriers. For instance, in the US, the iPhone is only available with AT&T:
"We ask that you examine this issue carefully and act expeditiously should you find that exclusivity agreements unfairly restrict consumer choice or adversely impact competition in the commercial wireless marketplace," the Committee wrote.

Senator John Kerry (D-MA), the Committee chair, also said he would convene a hearing on Wednesday to explore whether the marketplace for mobile is best served with or without exclusive contracts.

"Today, we've got a wireless marketplace where four companies account for more than 85 percent of all subscribers," Kerry wrote on SaveTheInternet.com's blog. "In fact, nine of the most popular ten phones are locked in a deal with one of these big wireless carriers, and are only available through one network."

It's certainly true that handsets are often locked to manufacturers, but there's a technical obstacle as well: the US, unlike Europe, has multiple cellular standards. In particular, the iPhone is GSM-only, so as far as I know it couldn't be used with either Sprint or Verizon even if it were unlocked. Apple could of course completely reengineer the phone, but it's not just an arbitrary matter of vendor lockin. If you want to run the iPhone on a non-AT&T carrier in the US, pretty much you're looking at T-Mobile. I guess some choice is better than none, and I'm not exactly thrilled with AT&T's network, but my impression is T-Mo is even worse.

It's important not to confused subsidized handsets and long-term contracts with exclusivity arrangements. In the US, handsets are sold at a discount but you need to sign a long-term contract to get the discount. Clearly, if the manufacturer is going to give you a big discount, they need to ensure that you don't take the discounted phone and go to a different carrier: but this doesn't require any kind of technical lock-in, they just need to penalize you for cancelling your contract early, which, in fact, they do.

By contrast, locking the phone to a carrier provides the carrier with a competitive advantage: if you want a cool phone, you have to go with the exclusive carrier. This would work fine even with no vendor subsidy. In fact, the first generation iPhones phones weren't really subsidized, but you still couldn't use it with any US carrier besides AT&T. I have one, and even once my two year contract runs out, I'd still need to jailbreak my phone if I wanted to use it with T-Mo.

Fans of the ultra-popular iPhone have been complaining to ConsumerAffairs.com and elsewhere that AT&T -- the exclusive carrier of the iPhone -- cripples the phone's functionality and has made upgrading to the new 3GS model too confusing.

"I purchased an iPhone on May 4th and they are not allowing me to exchange my 3G iphone to a 3Gs when it comes out," wrote Anthony of Lawrenceville, New Jersey. "I have discussed my problem with Apple, who has agreed AT&T is engaging in poor business practices."

I don't really have a position on whether this is a poor business practice or not. On the one hand, AT&T did subsidize the phone and people's two-year contracts aren't up. On the other hand, in the past when I've upgraded phones before the end of my contract, the carrier has just extended the contract for an additional X years and given me the subsidized price. Also, it's not like it was a huge secret that Apple was likely to announce a new iPhone at WWDC. So, I'm not sure it was the wisest decision to buy one of the 3G models a month before then.

 

June 8, 2009

Am I the only one who's not totally thrilled with the Find-My-iPhone feature on the new iPhone? Unless I'm missing something, this lets someone who has access to my MobileMe account (or can guess my password or knows a vulnerability in MobileMe) track me or remotely erase/shutdown my phone. I hope there's some way to turn this feature off.

Acknowledgement: Hovav Shacham pointed out the tracking feature to me.

 

June 5, 2009

I've written before about how GPS manufacturers make it extremely difficult to load maps onto their devices. I've been saying for years (though disappointingly I don't seem to have blogged about it; it's that kind of failure to commit that cuts into your reputation for prescience) that eventually someone was going to put a mapping application on a generic programmable GPS-enabled handheld and that would be the beginning of the end for that kind of lock-in.

We're not there yet, but things are starting to change. Tom Harrison Maps, probably the premier manufacturer of backpacking maps for California, has teamed up with Earth Rover Software to put Harrison's maps on the iPhone. Each map is $4.99 and since the iPhone has a GPS and a nice big screen, I expect you're looking at a pretty reasonable competitor for a dedicated GPS. If nothing else, I would expect it to introduce price and feature pressure on the GPS manufacturers.