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.]
[E[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.]