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9/21/2007
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The Solution To Mobile Phone Deadlock? Somebody Has To Die

Every time we butt up against some rotten problem in the mobile phone world, everyone's got someone else to blame. The solution: Kill somebody (metaphorically). Columnist Cory Doctorow shows us how.

The triumvirate of phone manufacturers, mobile carriers, and entertainment companies are the world's reigning champions at shifting blame and pointing fingers. Ask Apple why it won't let you use any song in your iTunes library as an iPhone ringtone and it will tell you it's the fault of the greedy record companies.

The music industry is supposedly so addicted to the vanishing ringtone market that it won't let Apple get away with letting you use the music you own in new ways without paying a ringtone tax (and some of them won't let you use your music this way at all).

Likewise, ask Apple why the iPhone comes locked and it will tell you that AT&T insisted on this as the only way that it would offer Apple handsets. AT&T will tell you that locked handsets and vicious, one-sided term contracts are the only way to recoup the upfront cost of offering subsidized handsets to customers (what, they never heard of the installment plan?).

When Nokia announced that its first 4GB handset was going to be delayed by a month because it was adding Windows DRM (reducing functionality and increasing cost), it blamed it on the carriers, who were facing threats from the record industry -- who could pull ringtones licenses from the carriers and deprive them of the revenue.

And so on and so on. Every time we butt up against some rotten "feature" in the mobile phone world -- screwy data-pricing (the launch of the iPhone was followed by a spate of stories about multi-thousand-dollar phone bills that were delivered by forklift), carrier-locked handsets, handsets that can't run user-installed software, APIs that can't talk to the phone's radio hardware, batteries tied to handsets by cryptographic protocols intended to stop you from buying cheap generic replacements, phones that won't play your own music or movies, phones whose numbers can't be ported to another carrier, phones where number portability takes weeks or months, "unlimited" data-plans that cut you off if you use too much data -- everyone's got someone else to blame. It's the greedy, stupid, dinosauric carriers. It's the wimpy, gutless phone manufacturers. It's the coked-up Hollyweird fat cats from the record industry.

It starts to feel like a Mexican standoff, three tough guys, each pointing a gun at the others' heads, deadlocked and unwilling to risk anything to break the standoff. These kinds of hostage situations make for gripping cinematic moments, but only when we care about one or more of the hostages.

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