Digital Kayak

iProducts vs. weProducts

The stark contrast between two remarkable devices reaches beyond mere dollars and into the realm of technological philosophy.

By Adrian Duyzer
Published January 24, 2007

The iPhone, Apple's latest, freshest product was announced to enormous fanfare on January 9. The cellular phone, which is also a camera, personal digital assistant (PDA), multimedia player (think iPod with video) and wireless communications device (email, the Internet, and text messaging ala the Blackberry) is scheduled to be launched in June.

The phone has generated a ton of buzz among Apple fans (parodied here as fanatically devoted to the company) and among technophiles, geeks and gadget fiends in general.

The iPhone will be hitting the market at about the same as another intriguing device. Called the Children's Machine, it is a laptop designed to be rugged enough to survive in the harsh conditions of the developing world and cheap enough to be owned by the people who live there.

One Laptop Per Child

The Children's Machine

The Children's Machine (I'll just call it the laptop from now on) is the creation of the One Laptop per Child association (OLPC), an American non-profit organization created by faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The goal of the OLPC was to create a durable, energy-efficient and powerful laptop that is cheap enough for the developing world. The laptop had to be easy to use, because many or most of the children using it have no previous experience with high technology.

These goals required bold innovation. All of the extras in modern laptops were stripped out. The laptop has no hard drive (it uses flash memory instead, like a digital camera). In fact, it has no motor-driven moving parts, improving reliability and cutting down on power usage.

It has a cheap LCD display like those used in portable DVD players, and it runs the free, open-source operating system Linux instead of Microsoft Windows or Apple's OS-X. In fact, all of the software on the laptop will be free and open-source.

The laptop has a built-in wireless transmitter for web browsing and email. It is also designed to automatically connect to other nearby laptops, allowing children to sit near each other and chat, trade files and engage in group exercises.

It has support for a wide variety of externally connected devices, including foot-driven cranks for power generation so having electricity in the home or school is optional, not required.

The developers of the laptop report that "[i]n one Cambodian village where we have been working, there is no electricity, thus the laptop is, among other things, the brightest light source in the home"!

Apple: Producing the Latest in Gilded Cages

The iPhone is also a remarkable piece of technology, but it's one that comes with many strings attached.

The phone comes loaded with digital rights management (DRM) technology, a scheme supported by mainstream content producers like major music labels and movie producers that is so invasive it has been dubbed digital restrictions management.

iPhone

It means, for example, that a song downloaded from iTunes, Apple's music store, can only be played on one portable music player, the iPod. If you want to burn the music you purchased onto a CD so you can play it in your car, you'll need to strip the copy-protection mechanisms from it, a time-consuming process that is challenging for most people.

When the iPhone is released, it too will be locked into iTunes. And all the music you download for it from iTunes will only play on Apple hardware, because Apple refuses to license its copy protection mechanisms to other conmpanies.

Apple's goal is to make iTunes the premium channel for every single person who owns an Apple product. They're not selling a product, they're creating a captive audience.

To make matters worse, Americans who purchase the iPhone will be locked into a single cellular carrier, Cingular. (It's uncertain at this point which carrier Apple will choose to serve the Canadian market.)

Apple has branded itself as the home of creative free-thinkers, but this home looks more like a gilded cage.

I Versus We

The contrast between these two products, one built for the world's rich, the other for the world's poor, is as strikingly different as the environments each is designed for.

The iPhone is for subways, gleaming highrise towers, the bustling roaring thoroughfares of Tokyo, New York and Toronto.

The Children's Machine is for dusty plains and frigid steppes, sodden rainforests and ramshackle slums.

Apple has created a device for the individual and dubbed it the iPhone. The One Laptop Per Child association has created a notebook computer for the world that could be dubbed, perhaps, the weBook.

When the Children's Machine becomes available, one thought is that customers in the developed world could buy two machines, with one going to a child in the developing world. Buy one for the price of two, in other words.

If that happens, gadget lovers will have an interesting choice to make this year.

Adrian Duyzer is an entrepreneur, business owner, and Associate Editor of Raise the Hammer. He lives in downtown Hamilton with his family. On Twitter: adriandz

9 Comments

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted January 24, 2007 at 18:27:23

Normally I'd apologize for sounding contrarian...but I'm laid-up with a sinus infection, so not this time.

And the more I think about it, I'm not sure where to start.

I guess my first question would be 'Just what are you trying to say, here?'

What's your point? You seem to be crafting some kind of 'us and them', 'right vs wrong', 'rich vs poor' slant, but it's not quite there...

Are you jumping on board the Apple-bashing bandwagon? Are you trying to point up the absurdity of such an expensive device being marketed when there's such a need for technology –and access to it– at the other end of the spectrum? Is it a mild rant against geek-fueled consumerism?

Before I really try to repond, could you please clarify?

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By al (anonymous) | Posted January 25, 2007 at 10:50:48

Normally I'm agaisnt this sort of behaviour, But every other company is doing and apply didn't start doing well until it followed suit.

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By km (anonymous) | Posted January 29, 2007 at 18:14:58

[quote]
If you want to burn the music you purchased onto a CD so you can play it in your car, you'll need to strip the copy-protection mechanisms from it, a time-consuming process that is challenging for most people.
[/quote]

I'm afraid I must call BS. iTunes software lets you select songs, albums, playlists, etc. and then click "Burn" and your selections are burned to a CD, sans the FairPlay DRM. What kind of people are you hanging out with that would find this too challenging? My mother can do this (and in fact does).

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By vagrant (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2007 at 00:30:44

I think the author is making more of a social commentary than a geek rant. It is an interesting comparison not only of disparities in cultures but the author is also paralleling the i versus we in the product names. Although I do have to agree, iTunes is remarkably easy to use. Great article overall though.

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By rgelderrgeld (registered) - website | Posted January 30, 2007 at 18:03:18

Interesting piece. Not to stray to far from the topic at hand, but I have a comment/question about iTunes and digital rights.

I firmly believe in paying artists for their work by not using on-line services to share music files. As such, I purchase only from Napster and iTunes (and other artist official sites). Well....mostly iTunes because I like how music synchs seamlessly with my iPod, which I love, which I know is evil at some levels.

However, other iTunes users will know that each country has its own iTunes store. With a Canadian address on my credit card, I can buy only from the Canadian iTunes store. Why is that? The U.S. iTunes store has all sorts of stuff, like movies and TV shows which I cannot pay for legitimately. The U.K. store has all sorts of music I'd love to purchase, but can't because it isn't available in the Canadian store.

Can someone explain to me why, with the technology we have, I am not able to purchase these things? Doesn't iTunes U.K./U.S. want my money? What sort of "rights" things are going on here? I just don't get it.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 30, 2007 at 21:17:14

Hey rgelderrgeld, Your desire to pay artists is commendable but as it is, they hardly get any money from the music you buy online (or in the store, for that matter). Legendary producer Steve Albini has a great essay on the subject:

http://negativland.com/albini.html

You'd be doing them a better service by using a filesharing system to get the music and then mailing cash to the musicians.

The fact is, the business model for music has changed, and the RIAA companies don't want to admit that they're not needed anymore. A few bands, like Barenaked Ladies, get it: DRM is not about "theft" of "intellectual property" but about control: a label controlling what you, as a consumer, are allowed to do with the products you buy.

http://www.boingboing.net/2006/09/09/bar...

I can loan you my vinyl album and you can play it on your record player; but if I try to loan you my iTunes you're not allowed to play them on your iTunes software. Similarly, I can take apart my lawnmower to see how it works, but if I try to take apart my software, I get hit with a lawsuit. (It's no surprise that the movie industry is unhappy with Apple because they don't think its software is restrictive enough.)

"Fair use" means being allowed to do what you want with your own stuff; "intellectual property" means you don't actually own your stuff any more, you just pay for the right to use the company's stuff on their restrictive terms.

http://www.freedom-to-tinker.com/

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By rgelderrgeld (registered) - website | Posted February 17, 2007 at 14:16:25

Ryan:

Thanks for the links to the articles, which were most interesting. I have heard the horror stories. A friend of mine from high school was involved with a band called the "Munday Nuns", whose membership in large part (and excluding my friend) went on to become the "Killjoys". Remember them?

Speaking with him, he told me his friends and former bandmates were doing anything but getting rich off their fame. The Killjoys were a fairly well-known Canadian act around 10 years ago, having signed a multi-album deal with one of the big labels.

I'm not a sophisticated music indsustry type person, but I do love my iPod and I am purchasing from iTunes pretty much exclusively for two reasons:

  1. The seamless integration with my beloved iPod; and
  2. My understanding is that it is a legitimate form of purchasing music.

It is in the latter part where I gather I am being misled, insofar as, as the articles and my friend have pointed out, artists generally tend to get "fucked". However, I am earnest in my desire to do the right thing, but wouldn't feel entirely comfortable sending envelopes with cash to artists whose music I have file-shared.

The difference between now and when we loaned each other vinyl is the ease with which music can be copied in a very high-quality fashion. If you loaned me Rush 2112 (the red one), I may grow to like it so much that I need to go out and buy a copy for myself. No need to do that in the digital age.

I understand the motives of the "Right to Tinker" movement, but in an age where file sharing is so easy, is it realistic to expect that we can enjoy such rights without killing the music industry itself? Or am I sounding like one of those middle-aged, balding hipsters who calls everyone "baby"?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 21, 2007 at 20:23:22

Hi rgelderrgeld,

Thank you for a thought-provoking comment. I have a couple of Killjoys albums (I seem to recall buying them through Columbia House, so I'm not sure how much of my money actually made it to the band) and remember them fondly.

I didn't discover Rush until I received a copy of Moving Pictures for my birthday in 1981, but I wasted no time catching up with the rest of their oeuvre. In some cases, I borrowed copies of albums from friends and taped them - but eventually, I went out and bought them myself because I wanted the higher quality and liner notes.

That's still true today. MP3 is a lossy file format - it realizes part of the file size reduction through its compression algorithm and part of it by discarding some of the original data. As a result, MP3s don't sound as good as CDAs, the native CD audio format.

If you really want to enjoy a song the way it was meant to be heard, you still have to buy it on CD (or better yet, vinyl if you can find it - there's something palpably rich and organic about analog sound).

As it turns out, that's precisely what happens: people generally download MP3s of music they're not prepared to spend money on, so the music industry isn't actually losing any sales. In fact, there's actually no evidence whatsoever that file sharing is hurting the music industry. Overall, it seems to be revenue neutral - that is, it generates as many sales as it displaces.

Just as the movie industry claimed VCRs would ruin their business (former MPAA President Jack Valenti infamously said, "the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone"), the RIAA is now making outrageous claims about the pernicious effects of file sharing networks that are utterly unsubstantiated.

As for the ease of file sharing: it's not that easy. You still have to search a filesharing network like Limewire, download a bunch of stuff and then sift through it to discard the duds, low bitrates, planted fakes, corrupted files, and so on.

It's tedious and time-consuming. Pulling together enough decent quality songs to fill an album can easily take far longer than an hour; assuming $20 per hour, the opportunity cost of the time spent doing this is actually comparatively poor.

If there was a 'legitimate' music service with a highly usable interface that sold high-bitrate MP3s (i.e. no DRM) for a cheap enough price - say, 25 cents per song - I'd gladly pay for the convenience. Interestingly, Apple's Steve Jobs recently made a similar argument. His essay is worth reading in full, but here's an excerpt:


Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store. Every iPod ever made will play this DRM-free music.

Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy. Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. That’s right! No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.

http://www.apple.com/hotnews/thoughtsonm...


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By another view (anonymous) | Posted September 03, 2008 at 00:14:58

I am so frustrated by this sites divided line of thought, to where I have felt the need to comment, which I have never done before any where else on the web. A couple things first about the writer of the article and the commenters. The article itself is a piece of dung and, although had interesting information, was biased quite a bit. Apple owes all of its success really to Steve Jobs and his vision and Marketing savvy. His products “were” easy at one point but are basic items marked up so high and he can get away with it. But to compare Apple to an opensource project like OLPC just seems ludicrous they are not even on the same playing field.
The links posted by Ryan were more interesting than the article. Thank you,
But on the other hand the comment that stirred me to write about this was also one of Ryan's. His file sharing is “tedious and time-consuming. Pulling together enough decent quality songs to fill an album can easily take far longer than an hour; assuming $20 per hour, the opportunity cost of the time spent doing this is actually comparatively poor.” Now torrenting is another form of file sharing which has actually worked where, common sense providing, one can find those higher quality files for little time.
Now, as for myself, my budget and tastes lend me to take this route. I listen to Japanese music and would like to watch Japanese movies but finding quality on the store shelves is hard when I am inexperienced in as to what is out there. Now that is where Ryan's comment comes true in many cases, only that is directed to a “brick and mortar” store where finding a single quality product for their price point can be tedious. Torrenting has netted others quantity which can be sorted little by little to learn and find those quality pieces which can be transferred into buying similar items at stores. Its happened a lot that way.
Kinokunia bookstores is a mainstream store found in America where one can purchase Japanese items but due, music specific, Sony's record label is like the “Big Four” taking huge cuts from artists setting the price for their CD which in turn, through the channels of distribution, in which stores like Kinokunia take huge mark-ups to cover importing costs and store overhead. Japan is an expensive place and as such I am not surprised by their costs where a full album can cost eighty dollars and a singles CD will cost thirty-five.
DRM protection and Sony's style of protection found on their CD's will stay in place for a quite long time and until Record Studios realize the artists and public at large is fed up. I will continue to support bands like Nine inch Nails who's leader Trent Razor has stood up for not only himself and his music rights but for the public telling his fans to “Steal my music, torrent it freely, give it to your friends and family..” to where not only does he give away his albums on his website but will also make CD's at a lower cost since it is all his own profit not the Record Labels.
There are different ways of looking at so much and if either purchasing at a store or using electronic methods both are truly viable and both companies and web domains which provide content freely should learn to work together not wholly against each other. Companies could see this as a incident to change practices to advance and not continue outdated, stagnant business practices. But as we in America are Captailist's and money rules policy won't change. I cannot offer a solution to the problem but only an opinion and an insight to learn that there are other forms out there. Thanks for inciting me a lot “Raise the Hammer” and other commenters.

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