Using Technology Against The Consumer
Panasonic released a notice that their camera firmware will force consumers to only use Panasonic batteries, continuing a trend of applying technology to prevent consumer freedom.
I remember when software license keys first appeared in the early 1980s. I was working at Digital Equipment Corporation at the time and had to deal with entering these long hexadecimal number sequences for unlocking functionality that existed just a day before without them. Until that point people simply bought software and owned it. If you needed it on 3 computers, you bought 3 copies. Computer networking changed that. Now you could install one copy and people could share it. Software manufacturers initially just switched from charging you per copy to per user, but then they changed their code so that only a certain total number of people could use it, and if you wanted more you had to pay more. The more aggressive companies would based it on the total number of POSSIBLE users rather than the number of SIMULTANEOUS users. It didn’t matter that the code was identical and there was nothing special about 50 people versus 5 people except the result of an “If” statement, you had to pay more. You had enough hardware and processing power, but you were still stuck. It was an artificial limitation; like buying an oven with 2 working burners and if you wanted all 4 to work you had to send more money. Then the limitation was further restricted to EXPIRE, forcing you to send money every year or so just to keep the switch turned on (whether you used it once or 10000 times in that period). Then copy protection was introduced, sending a “we don’t trust you” message to the customer while interfering with his/her ability to backup their own purchased products. This all caused a lot of controversy back then and still does today. It’s what started the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source movement.
This was eventually adopted in hardware too. CPU manufacturers use to sell different versions of their processors at different prices based just on the results of quality control. Processors that failed tests at high speeds but worked at lower speeds could be sold as a lower speed processor at a reduced price. Seemed fair; and was better than throwing them away. But then they adopted a practice of artificially crippling a CPU in a number of ways (turning off the cache, disabling the floating point unit, etc.), sometimes to help prevent their previous product from becoming instantly obsolete. This caused a controversy similar to software licensing because now the more expensive processor was identical to the less expensive one, except that something was simply turned off and you had to pay more to turn it on.
As digital photography and printers began eliminating film, manufacturers of consumables switched from selling film to selling ink cartridges. In the age of film cameras there were a few (such as the Instamatic 44 and Polaroid) who produced cameras that only accepted a specific type of film, but for the most part everyone adopted 35mm film. With digital technology, many printer manufacturers try to force consumers to buy only THEIR ink cartridges by adding a little processor intelligence to the printer to detect what is inserted. This was brand loyalty forced instead of earned. Consumers had no choice but to purchase a specific, higher priced cartridge that was really no better than a lesser expensive one because the printer was smart enough to prevent it.
As technology began enabling manufacturers to override consumer choice, the technology itself was reverse-engineered and over come time and time again. Taking things apart to learn how they work or making them work better has been a part of life since the beginning of curiosity and the scientific method. Thus in 1998 the DMCA was passed, making reverse engineering or discussion about it in the USA a legal matter, since it was unlikely it could ever be prevented otherwise. The massive issues this created concerning publishing security vulnerabilities, scientific research, education, product cross-compatibility, product backward compatibility, international law, and more are beyond the scope of this article.
This all moved into media, where copy protection went from preventing you from making a copy of your purchase to dictating what you could watch or listen to, when, and on what equipment. Digital restrictions (called Digital Rights Management by the seller) forced consumers to re-purchase the same product over and over again, while making it much more difficult to resell their used product on the open market. Stories of CDs and DVDs not playing on some equipment were common. This won’t stop here; eventually DRM will prevent people from connecting up certain types of monitors to certain types of receivers using certain types of speakers (and perhaps certain brands of wire, all in the name of ensuring quality). Lawsuits have been filed from the blind siting the Disabilities Act because they are being prevented from listening to digital books when publishers disable the speech translator in the Amazon Kindle to protect their audiobook sales.
The vendor arguments in favor of these practices concern prevention of theft and piracy, protection of assets, sustainability of business, contractual obligations, quality, safety, etc. Since I am primarily a consumer and technology savvy, technology restrictions tend to inhibit my ability to fully enjoy my product experience rather than help me control something I’ve produced. I can’t help but wonder what today’s state of technology would look like if all these legal and artificial means of control and crippling were not around. If processors were allowed to be as fast and as cheap as the market dictated, and software upgrades took place because people were attracted to new functionality instead of their license expiring, and businesses were forced to adapt to change, and consumers could freely copy their movies and music to any device they owned, and manufacturers and sellers were forced to make a profit only on how good their products, innovations, and history were.