I’ve long held to the analogy that PCs and Macs are a lot like the USA and UssR during the cold war. PCs are cheaper, and there’s a vast number of items you can buy (though many just don’t work). Apple, on the other hand, provides a much higher quality of goods, but under the strict control of the one monolithic corporation that makes everything from desktops to mp3 players to cell phones.

Apple has been exercising this control in ways that must make even Microsoft green with envy. Thanks to the massive popularity of the iPhone, they’ve managed to get their fingers into all of our pockets. It’s bad enough that they cost an arm and a leg, or that they licence their “apps” so that only programs they approve will run on them.

An iPhone is a computer. As is an iPod – you can play doom on even very old nanos. Apple programs them to give an unfair advantage to themselves, their own software and their own services (like iTunes). Did you know Apple had to disable functions on the iTouch to stop people from using it as a free phone over wireless networks? And while it’s now starting to release apps for both the iTouch and iPhone to do this, they all cost money. Kinda annoying for a service which could easily be free with less work.

The last time they got in trouble they went to court to make it illegal to “jailbreak” your own iPhone – to install your own non-apple-approved software. They lost. So they sent out code in software upgrades that turned any iPhone into an iBrick (disabling all functions) and telling customers to buy a new ones. That generated a class-action lawsuit from people who felt that by spending enough for a laptop on this high-end computer – phone gave them the right to install what they wanted.

Now the issue is the 4th generation iPhones. In their zest to release the new phones with their classy metal case, they didn’t do a whole lot of product testing. It turns out that many common ways of holding the phone end up grounding out the antenna, destroying reception and eating battery life like a power drill. Apple’s lack of enthusiasm in dealing with the problem has resulted in not only massive customer dissatisfaction but another round of class-action lawsuits.

I’m certainly no fan of Apple. I admit, I’ve got an iPod (classic – much more room for music without all that touch-screen nonsense), but do everything humanly possible to avoid loading it with iTunes, as the notion of only being able to put files onto a portable hard drive from one location seems a little dumb to me. I’ve never been a fan of their computers – they may be more powerful pound-for-pound than Windows machines (as is my pet rock), but the extra cost has never seemed worth it to me. I’ve known how to swap out cards in a PC since I was 13, and have never had a problem rigging up the extra power to run photoshop smoothly on a windows machine without spending more than I would on a mac (which tend to be much harder to upgrade). Plus the whole “cult marketing” thing really bugs me – getting preached at by devotees of a computer company at the bar doesn’t make me any more likely to use their products. And ultimately, I’m writing this on a spliced up old PC laptop which doesn’t run windows. It runs linux (admittedly, a very unimpressive variety of ubuntu), and that’s more stable, more secure and more efficient than a mac, and it’s free. It can even be rigged to help an iPod play doom. And as for graphic editing, GIMP (the major open-source photoshop alternative) can do almost everything photoshop can (and I use both a fair bit). Perhaps it’s not quite as good, but photoshop is a thousand-dollar program which takes up around a gigabyte and a half (last time I checked). Gimp is 17 megabytes, and free. And without struggling to make either Bill Gates or Steve Jobs rich, this laptop, which is the better part of a decade old, has no trouble rendering massive images.

The technology to put free cell phones in all our pockets is here already. I’ve written before about software hacks you can use to turn your $60 wireless router into a $600 professional version – and the phones (or even music players and datebooks) we carry will already run the software we need to run viop over wireless networks throughout pretty much any area which gets reception now. The software already exists. And because this scares the living daylights out of phone companies, they’re doing more and more to prevent us from doing it.

The last time I went to buy a new phone at the mall I was told none of the smartphones they had would work with wifi networks unless I paid extra for a data plan from the cell phone provider. This is theft. I pay enough for cell phone service and internet service already, i don’t need to buy it all over again to use the internet on my phone.

This is the real danger of intellectual property laws. They go well beyond rewarding people for inventing – in fact they prevent it. First it was illegal to make our own copies of data we’d bought, but forbidding us to run our own programs on computers we’ve bought is an enormous invasion of our rights as digital consumers, and a blatant disregard for us as customers. And no slick marketing campaign can cover that up.