Editorial: iLounge’s Editor, On Apple Authentication and Punishment | iLounge Article

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Editorial: iLounge’s Editor, On Apple Authentication and Punishment

We try not to bury the most important parts of our reviews several pages deep, but what unexpectedly attracted the most attention in our review of the third-generation iPod shuffle was in the middle of page seven: a brief discussion of the authentication technology that Apple has added to the new shuffle, and to its headphones.

Under normal circumstances, we’d leave this information to speak for itself, but we’ve received inquiries from a number of publications and wanted to answer them. As we previously noted, there is an authentication chip inside the new shuffle’s headphones, specifically within the remote control housing. If you need to see a picture for yourself, Boing Boing Gadgets cracked the earphones open and snapped a shot. From what we were told, Apple offered to sell developers the chip for $1 in a bundle with a $2 microphone, costs which are then multiplied and passed on to consumers. The component costs are now apparently lower. There are also authentication chips inside the new Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic, and the In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic—the ones that you may recall were delayed last year for mysterious reasons.

If you’d like to hear the shuffle sending authentication signals, you can download this recording (right click to save), or if you have a shuffle, connect it to either a sensitive pair of earphones or a computer’s audio port, then switch the power on. The signaling appears right before the music starts to play; it is a handshake, which if successful, can be followed by the exchange of control-signaling data.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation picked up on the authentication reference in our review and declared it to be “DRM,” a term which broadly “refers to access control technologies used by publishers, copyright holders, and hardware manufacturers to limit usage of digital media or devices,” as Wikipedia defines it. For the time being, we’re not going to weigh in on whether or not authentication of the sort Apple is using here actually constitutes DRM. The point we were making in the review was this: if you want a pair of headphones that will work to control the new iPod shuffle, you will now have to buy something that Apple either makes itself, or approves—this process has already led to needlessly overpriced video cables and chargers, as well as creating problems for many additional types of accessories that you may or may not have ever heard of. We speak, and listen, to all the major players in this industry; the stories we hear off the record would shock most people.

In its article, the EFF also asked a very insightful question:

“Why have so many of the reviews of iPods failed to notice the proliferation of these Apple ‘authentication chips’? If it were Microsoft… I’d think reviewers would be screaming about it.”

Our belief is this: it’s not that reviewers have failed to notice, but that they’ve been cowed into silence. After going after “Apple rumor sites” without success, only belatedly figuring out that the constant buzz they generated was helping the company more than hurting it, Apple has now decided to “punish” buzzkillers—journalists who the company doesn’t consider friendly enough to its marketing mission. And by “punish,” we mean to say that this specific word is used to refer to what happens if someone has said something Apple doesn’t approve of. Amongst the topics on the forbidden list: specifics of the Made For iPod and Works With iPhone licensing programs, its undisclosed and unexplained lock-down of video accessories, that bizarre “we have to charge now for software updates” policy, defective products, and so on. The more one talks about such things, the more likely punishment becomes; our first “punishment” was over this little ditty that spread all across the Internet. Multiple Apple sources confirmed this to us, on the record and without any caveats at a trade show, but we shouldn’t have discussed it. Riii-ght.

The passive side of “punishment” is denial of access: during a period of punishment, Apple mightn’t allow “punished” journalists to come to its events, or respond to their e-mails. The active side of punishment is similarly charming: Apple gives sunnier competitors advantages by supplying them with new hardware before it arrives in stores, and offers them exclusive or semi-exclusive interviews with Apple executives. Thankfully, there are some other securities laws regarding selective disclosure of material information that the company’s forced to follow, so the interviews are generally unimportant, but that’s another story.

Believe it or not, at some point late last year, we were told specifically that the company was going to be pursuing a “fanboys only” approach—buttering up publications that basically accepted and reprinted the company’s statements with little to no challenge. You can probably guess which ones we’re talking about: they’re the ones that have become the company’s unofficial mouthpieces in recent years, either glossing over or praising its least praiseworthy actions, as well as showering all sorts of attention on expensive new Apple products that they would never have purchased on their own for testing. We’ve made clear to Apple that we’re not willing to compromise the integrity of our editorial for preferential treatment, or even plain access. Silly us.

Thus, thanks to our refusal to be leashed by Apple, you won’t see us at the iPhone software event tomorrow; we’re being “punished” for not sugar-coating our words enough. That’s not our style. Like most of our readers, we’re just customers, albeit pretty serious customers—every time you see an iPod or iPhone reviewed on iLounge, we’ve bought it (or, say, eleven of it) ourselves. Our writers hold no Apple stock or interest in how that stock performs; we’re just here to provide you with facts and our informed opinions. Apple’s upset because we’ve been telling our readers too much—and constantly taking your side, rather than Apple’s, whenever the company is in the wrong. We do this proudly. And we’re not going to apologize for it.

So, to the EFF and any others who might be wondering why we report on topics like authentication when other people don’t—even when apologist morons like this guy claim that we’re just making it up for hits—the reason is simple. We’re not here to hype or justify everything Apple does. We’re also not using Apple’s decisions or omissions to try and drum up traffic for the site; as noted, that authentication section was indeed buried on the seventh page of a nine-page review. Our mission is to get good, solid information out there—both facts and well-informed opinions on new Apple products and related third-party offerings, issuing praise for whatever deserves praise, and criticism for whatever merits critique, without regard to anything but the products and services we’re covering. That includes behind-the-scenes stuff like this with Apple—it’s unfortunate, but it’s not going to affect our coverage.

For that reason, regardless of whether we remain “punished” or whatever else happens, we’re going keep doing what we do: offering objective, honest analysis, and comprehensive reviews of Apple’s products. To do anything else would be to give in to a form of manipulation that benefits no one—ultimately, not even Apple, which has grown as much over the years by listening to its reasonable critics as it has from catering to its most devoted customers. Often, as is the case with us, those people are one and the same.

Thank you for your continued readership and support.

Jeremy Horwitz, Editor-in-Chief, iLounge

[Editor’s Note: Either coincident with or immediately subsequent to publication of this article, Apple confirmed to Boing Boing Gadgets that the iPod shuffle contains what it is referring to as a “control chip” that it is selling and licensing under the Made For iPod program. Past accounts of the Made For iPod program have suggested that licensees are limited or prohibited from trying to circumvent the program by using unlicensed parts to make accessories, however, it is presently unclear whether these terms also apply to the new control chip.]

[Editor’s Note 2: For those who may be interested in additional electronic and business details regarding the chip, we have posted a new article discussing how it operates, as well as several of the business consequences of acquiring it.]

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Comments

1

Fight the good fight, iLounge!

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 4:40 PM (CDT)

1

I could talk about my views on this whole chip thing, but what I really want to say is thanks for writing what you feel is right. Though I love my Apple products that doesn’t mean the company is above questioning, and doesn’t do anything wrong. I read iLounge for it’s impartial, and not watered down reviews. Thanks, and keep up the good work.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 4:41 PM (CDT)

1

If the cost of this chip is <$1 I don’t see it as that big of a deal, especially for Apple.  They always have wanted complete control over how their hardware is used.

Not saying Apple is 100% right here, but I think we need to wait and see what happens over the next month or so. I think the EFF jumped on this story a bit quick.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 4:42 PM (CDT)

1

Has anybody reverse engineered the controller chip to see what it actually does? Does it do any “authentication”? Or is it needed to send signals down the wire from the three switches that are on the controller?

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 4:57 PM (CDT)

1

Thank you so very much for this article Jeremy! I really applaud the fact that this website does not cave in to the pressure of becoming another biased Apple news source (AppleInsider being the most biased of them all). I think your reviews are objective and I have found that this website is the best in terms of iPod reviews that look at what consumers want in their products, not just what Apple deceives us with its marketing. Keep up the good work!

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 5:01 PM (CDT)

1

Thanks for publishing this piece.  Apple’s affinity for chips in iPod accessories has always been suspicious, and this latest development doesn’t reassure me that they have consumers’ best interests at heart.  So thank you iLounge for standing with us.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 5:02 PM (CDT)

1

@klasseng Not from what I’ve read.  That’s why I think iLounge bringing this to everyone’s attention was a good thing, but the EFF jumping on board so quickly was a mistake in my opinion.  So if you are an Apple hater or fanboy think it’s best to see what happens over the next 4 weeks before ranting.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 5:03 PM (CDT)

1

I’ve written to Apple customer service saying that unbiased, honest reviews are far more likely to make me buy anything than carefully managed marketing information. Keep up the good work iLounge.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 5:27 PM (CDT)

1

From Macrumors (macrumors.com/2009/03/16/no-drm-in-headphones-for-new-ipod-shuffle):

Macworld, however, contacted an Apple spokesman about the matter. While the spokesman confirmed the existence of the chip, its intended purpose is said to be related to the “Made for iPod” program alone. Boing Boing Gadgets was also able to speak with Apple and received what is so far the clearest explanation regarding whether the chip contains DRM:

Just spoke with Apple. There is no encryption or authentication on the chip, so clones could conceivably be made, just not with “Made for iPod” official certification. And now we know!

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 5:40 PM (CDT)

1

Justin: Macrumors has updated their story, however, the text above is not really an accurate summary, particularly the part around the word “alone.”

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 6:02 PM (CDT)

1

Great article, though now we’ll all be keeping a watchful eye on those who DID get invites to tomorrow’s event!

“You will atone, Mr. Beale”! ;)

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 6:17 PM (CDT)

1

OK, so if this is the “worst iPod ever”, as you’ve called it, we can expect it not to sell very well and will thus be replaced by Apple with something that will sell better.

Also, why on earth should Apple have “consumers’ interests at heart”, as stated by one of the commentators? They’re in the business of making money, pure and simple. If they think they sell the iPod shuffle and its super-expensive accessories, then they will make it and offer it for sale. If you don’t like it don’t buy it. Very simple.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 6:28 PM (CDT)

1

@Jeremy Yeah, they updated it after I posted that. I’m still in wait and see mode, but I have a feeling this isn’t going to be a big deal in the end.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 6:42 PM (CDT)

1

Wow, all this “backroom” stuff is crazy.  Glad to hear that iLounge is standing its ground as an impartial and trusted reporter.  It truly paints a different impression of Apple than we on the outside every see.  This just confirms my appreciation for all iLounge does for those of us that are interested in iPhones, iPods, and associated accessories.  Keep up the good work.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 6:45 PM (CDT)

1

Wow.  That’s a long way to keep digging when you’re already in the hole.  Apple has discovered a neat way of controlling an iPod from the headphones alone.  That’s worth a patent, son.  They are within their rights to require others to license it.  It’s not DRM, it’s not mind control, it’s not 1984, it’s not draconian, no one is going to be scarred by this.  Considering people pay upwards of $100 for aftermarket iPod headphones, this $1 or $2 add on is a non issue.  Man up and admit this past weekend was an exercise in silliness.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 7:09 PM (CDT)

1

I appreciate the reviews and presentation of information on iLounge.

Now that more facts have come out about the controller chip in the iPod Shuffle headset cord, it seems that to label the chip as an “authentication chip” or “DRM” was premature.

I don’t like some of the things that Apple does (like lock my iPhone to my carrier). But a lot of the things Apple does is because the are forced to by partner contracts and the rights of others. I don’t think Rogers in Canada would carry the iPhone if it weren’t locked to them. It happens in every country that doesn’t have laws expressly prohibiting lock-in. On the other hand I appreciate the measures that Apple takes to secure my iPhone.

It seems to me that most of Apple’s actions are in protection of revenue and profit. They don’t seem to take action against individuals that mess around with their products (hardware or software). But get organized and try to make a buck off of it by setting up parasitic ecosystems, Apple’s lawyers will come a knocking!

peace,
klasseng

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 7:18 PM (CDT)

1

#15/#16: We never called it DRM. It is an authentication chip, and even Apple’s licensees were calling it an authentication chip as recently as today. Apple’s referral to it as a control chip is merely an issue of semantics, and one intended to distract from the core issue that it is now requiring purchase of Apple parts in order to make Apple-licensed headphones.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 7:38 PM (CDT)

1

I find the “authentification/control” chip issue itself of secondary importance in this story. What galls me is how Apple is treating those with whom they are currently unhappy. Keep holding their feet to the fire, Jeremy. Fanboy websites are plentiful. Useful, informative websites are few.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 8:16 PM (CDT)

1

I haven’t posted in forever, but I just wanted to chime in to say a simple “thanks.”

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 8:25 PM (CDT)

1

No iLounge coverage of the iPhone OS 3.0 event? Blah… thats too bad.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on March 16, 2009 at 8:43 PM (CDT)

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