David Heinemeier Hansson

May 24, 2021

Who owns your iPhone?

You can spend up to $1,399 on an iPhone 12 Pro Max in the US, but even though the button to commit to this extravagant purchase says "buy", the transaction isn't really a sale in the traditional sense. Because even if you pay lavishly for this magnificent pocket computer, it's never truly yours.

The Right To Repair
You'd think that after spending such an extravagant sum on a new pocket computer, you should be able to have fixed if it breaks by whomever you chose. But that isn't so. Apple's repair program is severely restricted, and prevents many independent shops access to critical spare parts. That means you can only get your issues fixed through the official stores, which often is a cumbersome, slow process – and that's if you're so lucky as to have one nearby!

Consumer groups have long been on about this with not just Apple, but a whole host of computer manufacturers. But it's Apple that's fighting back most ferociously. They're hiring armies of lobbyists, propping up fake industry groups, and buying off opposition with sleazy side deals, all to prevent legislation that would enshrine the right to repair from passing state legislatures.

Read Mark Bergen's in-depth report in Bloomberg for all the gory details on Big Tech's fight against The Right To Repair, which is led by Apple.

The Right To Install
Since the dawn of general-purpose computers, their function has been to execute programs that they were technically capable of running. That's why people would buy them! Not to marvel at the chips and circuitry, but to run software. Spending $1,399 on an iPhone is a means to an end: running software on a computer that fits in your pocket. That was the revolution.

But the iPhone doesn't let you execute whatever program you see fit to run. It only executes programs that Apple has approved, and if they don't approve it, you can't run it. That might sound obvious, but it's a startling reversal of computing history.

Microsoft got in a world of trouble back at the turn of the millennia with the infamous "cut off their air supply" approach to Netscape. But that was a competitive approach, not an exclusionary one. Microsoft gave away their browser and preinstalled it. They didn't prevent Netscape from running on Windows. Even that was beyond the pale for one of the most ruthless monopolists in the history of computing at the time.

Yet that's where we are now. When Apple kicked out Fortnite from the App Store, they not only prevented the game from being installed by new customers on future iPhones, but also took the game away from existing players who wanted to install it on another device (this is how my kids ended up switching to Android and PCs!). That's barely one step removed from Amazon yanking a book you've bought on your Kindle off your device because "buy" doesn't mean "yours", it just means "you have a license we might revoke at any time".

It didn't used to be this way
Apple has been so successful for so long now that it's easy to forget that not really owning the pocket computers they sell is weird. That it didn't used to be this way. Not just in computing, but in many adjacent industries as well.

Imagine if the Sony Walkman could only have played music that Sony approved? And demanded a 30% licensing fee for? Or the RAM in your pentium PC could only be installed by authorized Compaq mechanics? Or a Panasonic VHS player couldn't play your porno tapes because the company didn't approve of the content?

Actually, let's take that last example, and explore it a little further. In 1967, Denmark became the first country in the world to legalize pornography. Soon after, you could purchase pornographic magazines in convenience stores, and rent such movies in video rental shops. All VHS players would play those tapes, regardless of whether the CEOs of Sony, Panasonic, or Phillips personally approved of that content. It was legal, people wanted to do it, and so it was.

Today Pornhub is such a force that they found it necessary to limit the quality of the streaming service during the early days of corona, such that networks wouldn't be overloaded, just like Netflix and other streaming giants did. One unverified estimate that's been throw around is that porn accounts for something like 20-30% of internet bandwidth, and another that 20% of internet searches revolve around porn.

So clearly there's enthusiastic user demand. But can you install a Pornhub app on your iPhone? No. Why? Because Apple said no. THAT'S WEIRD. It's also wrong.

The web would never be approved today
The only loophole here in the web. Apple hasn't (yet?) taken to censor what parts of the web you can access using your pocket computer, but they could. Tomorrow. Because one of the categories that Apple doesn't allow any competition within is browsers!! Sure, you can install Chrome and Firefox, but they're just skins on Apple's own Safari browser. If Apple changes what Safari is able to access, every browser on the iPhone will automatically comply.

Can you imagine trying to submit an app for a new system called the web today? If the web hadn't existed prior to the iPhone, there's no way in hell Apple would ever have approved a browser with unfettered, unfiltered access today. No way.

Just try to imagine the description in the app submission: Application that lets users access any type of content, hosted in a decentralized manner around the world, with no preapproval.


The freedom to own what you buy
If you ask most people whether they think that they should be able to have their computers repaired by whomever they choose or be allowed to install whatever software they want, it's not exactly a grand morale dilemma. OF COURSE WE SHOULD.

There's a completely intuitive and correct line from "I bought it" to "I own it". It's a basic instinctual response, and no amount of market dominance can suppress that forever. Even if Apple does its outmost to keep the question out of sight, and then wrap it in convoluted, scary, safety arguments when it does pop up.

It's a computer. It's my computer. Whether it fits in my pocket or sits on my desk just doesn't matter.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.