Image: Chris Kindred/Motherboard

The iPhone Is an Ideal Machine for Exerting Intellectual Property Control

Apple’s control over the iPhone means that consumers will continue to have more of an ongoing relationship with Apple than nearly any other company.

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Jul 11 2017, 1:00pm

Image: Chris Kindred/Motherboard

James Hayes is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School, where he studied intellectual property law.

The iPhone—by many accounts the most profitable product in history—represents the culmination of Apple's continuing objective to exert ultimate authority over users' technological experience through a specific and targeted intellectual property strategy. Due largely to its phenomenal success, the iPhone is the device through which Apple has been best able to assert power over its users' IP interests.

The iPhone was and is the culmination of Apple's design ethos
From the Macintosh onward, Apple has operated under a mandate to create computing systems that are tightly, "vertically" integrated such that the product's hardware and software are inexorably linked and controlled by Apple to the greatest degree possible. The Macintosh was specifically designed to make altering its internal components difficult, software developers were forced to write programs specifically for the Mac OS instead of porting them from other systems, and the Macintosh was limited to fewer input/output and expansion ports than many of its contemporaries including the Apple II—a computer whose initial release preceded the Macintosh by seven years. Some of these decisions have been carried forward into the modern era: The newest MacBook models, for example, are nearly impossible to modify and include but a single USB-C port for both I/O and charging.

In the decades since the release of the Macintosh, however, Apple has relinquished some of the control the company exhibited over its earliest personal computers: modern Apple computers are able to run the Windows operating system; Apple no longer engineers the processors in its desktop and laptop computers in-house; it is simpler to engineer macOS software than it was previously; and some Apple computers can be upgraded or modified by the home user with relative ease.

The Apple II, a much more modifiable computer than the Macintosh. Image: David Osit/Motherboard

Instead, Apple has turned to the iPhone as the device over which it has exhibited levels of control most comparable to, and in some ways exceeding, that which it displayed over the Macintosh in 1984. The iPhone is powered by systems-on-a-chip designed by Apple, Apple is the proprietor of the device's sole I/O port, users cannot install software on their iPhones unless Apple has approved it for inclusion within its centralized App Store, and Apple maintains tight control over aftermarket iPhone repairs.

The iPhone also represents an integral component of the "Apple ecosystem," an interconnected system through which data is shared between compatible Apple devices, and through which users surrender control over their own data in exchange for a host of convenience-oriented features like the automatic syncing of text messages and photographs across one's smartphone and laptop.

The fact that new iPhones can only transmit audio digitally means that Apple now has the capability to incorporate deeper DRM than has been possible previously.

Where early Apple mobile devices such as the iPod relied on a user's personal computer as the hub for syncing one's media across multiple devices, the iPhone's portability and network connectivity enabled a transition toward a more fully featured Apple iCloud as the primary means of hosting data created on various Apple devices. Through the iPhone, Apple has achieved unprecedented control over its devices' hardware and software, thus exhibiting unprecedented power over the consumer experience in using the device to communicate, create, and store data. The iPhone represents the culmination of Apple's design ethos: it is minimally designed, its software and hardware is highly limited and regulated, and it pushes users toward relinquishing control over their mobile computing experience.

Newer iPhone design choices suggest Apple is moving toward limiting consumer agency
The iPhone's immediate impact on the smartphone market surpassed any of its contemporaries in large part because it represented both a leap away from stilted mobile hardware and software and a move toward a more open and connected mobile communications standard. The iPhone revolutionized mobile technology by enabling individuals to use smartphones to more effectively create, process, share, and consume data (albeit with limitations deriving from the extent to which Apple disallows certain software to be installed on the iPhone.) Some recent iPhone design choices particularly expose Apple's underlying tendency toward the calculated restriction of features over which it is unable to exhibit intellectual property control.

Perhaps the most significant of those choices was Apple's removal of the 3.5 mm headphone jack from new iPhone models in 2016. The move away from the headphone jack benefits Apple's intellectual property portfolio in three ways.

The headphone jack was removed to make space in the phone. Image: iFixit

First, it forces manufacturers and users of wired audio devices away from an open audio transmission standard and toward Apple's proprietary Lightning standard.

Second, although users can bypass Lightning by wirelessly streaming audio over Bluetooth, iOS's method of connecting devices in that manner allows Apple to leverage its trademark hardware-software integration to provide iPhone users with incentives to purchase its own, first-party audio listening hardware. Specifically, the "W1" processor included within certain Apple wireless headphones enables, among other things, a superior Bluetooth pairing process between W1 and iOS devices, meaning that Apple can direct customers toward the purchase of such headphones by promising what it claims to be a better wireless listening experience than that offered by its competitors.

Third, the fact that new iPhones can only transmit audio digitally means that Apple now has the capability to incorporate deeper hardware-software digital rights management (DRM) integration into the iPhone's media applications than has been possible previously.

The iPhone is not merely a blank canvas; it is the paint, palette, and brushes as well.

Similar DRM technology has been employed through Intel's High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection system and Verance's Cinavia copy management system, which has been incorporated within all Blu-ray Disc players sold since 2012. Both use digital connection standards (DisplayPort, HDMI, and others) to decrypt, examine, flag, and limit access to unauthorized media in real time, a feat that cannot be accomplished through the analog headphone jack. Digital audio standards offer Apple and other rights holders a powerful means through which they could theoretically enforce new types of DRM by limiting playback through unauthorized devices or distorting the quality of media files they deem questionable, and could be used to force consumers toward particular media distribution services.

Hardware design that limits user choice is a necessary side effect of technological progress if the effect of such limitation is outweighed by the measure of the applicable improvement. While the deletion of the 3.5 mm headphone jack has created space inside the iPhone for a sophisticated haptic feedback system, it is nonetheless clear that Apple's move toward solely digital audio transmission is at the center of a vigorous and sophisticated intellectual property strategy.

Apple will gain greater ability to affect expression
Apple's power to influence the decisions people make in creating, storing, sharing, and consuming data only increases as more people continue to rely on smartphones as the primary device to complete those tasks. Every choice Apple makes in designing the iPhone, curating the applications within the App Store, and pointing the customer toward certain purchase decisions has the ability to impact both industry and consumer behavior and indeed that has been the case throughout the ten years since the iPhone was first released.

In that sense, the iPhone is an ideal machine for Apple to exert authoritarian intellectual property control. More limited of a system than a personal computer, but more convenient for many day-to-day tasks because of its computer-like features and portable form factor, the iPhone is the device through which Apple has been able to influence the user experience—and thus the way photographers capture images, songwriters record ideas, and business owners communicate with customers—more than any other product previously. The iPhone is not merely a blank canvas; it is the paint, palette, and brushes as well.

What does this mean for both Apple and consumers moving forward? As the iPhone becomes increasingly impenetrable, as more data is hosted on Apple devices and in the cloud, and as Apple's sales figures continue to soar, Apple becomes more able to monopolize the entirety of its users' communications experience. Apple's ability to direct intellectual property rights holders toward certain types of expression while limiting support for other such expression is potentiated with growing implications (how could Apple's political advocacy impact the information created, shared, and consumed by almost a billion iPhone users, for example?)

It is unlikely that Apple's goal is to drag the whole of popular culture toward certain trends other than those that directly favor its own market position. But Apple's history of closed product design, tendency toward walled-off software engineering, and penchant for multi-product computing "ecosystems" means that consumers will continue to have more of an ongoing, quasi-personal relationship with Apple than nearly any other corporation—a relationship over which Apple continuously ventures to exhibit, and through the iPhone has almost achieved, total dominion.

Motherboard staff is exploring the cultural, political, and social influence of the iPhone for the 10th anniversary of its release. Follow along .