It’s not often the bear growls. But I learned something today that made me angry. It appears that some of the n900s being sold by Vodaphone are carrying a branded, locked and otherwise knobbled version of the wonderful, open, free maemo firmware. I just can’t quite make up my mind whether I’m madder at Vodaphone for doing it or Nokia for letting them. Do you blame the choir-master for castrating the boy soprano “So he can sing for life” or the boy’s father who let him do it (for a price)?
So I need to rant about locking, branding and otherwise doing damage to phone firmware in the name of ‘customisation’. And this seems a good place to rant.
Locked phones: why do you need to lock the phone if you’re selling it me on contract? You have done a credit check on me, taken my bank details and made me sign that you can raid my bank account at regular intervals for the next 24 months and help yourself to whatever you see fit. If I want to challenge the amount you take, I will have a fight on my hands. You have me locked, there’s no need to lock my phone.
It’s not like I can afford to throw your sim card away and use another while I’m still paying you on a monthly basis – and even if I did why would you care? You still get my money. In fact, you’d be even better off if I had to continue paying you for calls while not using them.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who finds that the contract routinely outlives the phone. My last device lasted a mere 11 months into a 24 month contract before I drop-kicked it. So why lock the phone? By the time the contract is ended, the warranty on the phone is long gone, and I can just pay the chap at the market a tenner to unlock my device.
I can understand a little better the thinking behind locking pay-as-you-go phones. Except most payg purchasers pay almost, if not entirely all, of the purchase price of the phone. Locking makes no sense.
Branded firmware: You may think that your little bells and whistles are the best thing about using my phone. You know what? If Orange World, or Planet 3 were so good, I’d go browse them without you sticking links on the phone or making them my unchangeable home-page. They’re not. Forcing me to look at them is lazy, lazy marketing. I’m not going to buy from you just because you’re my provider: I will buy what’s best and most useful at the best price I can get it. It’s called ‘competition’. Shoving your ‘extras’ on my phone is anti-competitive.
And as for painting your logo on the casing? Believe me, if anyone ever got near enough to me and my phone to see that tiny little shiny mark on the phone, they wouldn’t be interested in which network I’m on.
Limiting facilities Why? Most ‘branded’ phone have their VOIP capacity disabled. Why? I’m already paying you for, say, 600 minutes/month cellphone calls. What does it matter to you whether I use them or not? If I prefer to make my calls via VOIP, why do you care? I pay for 500mb of data transfer per month – why is it acceptable for me to spend that on YouTube videos, email attachments or teddy-bear porn but not on VOIP? The moment I go over my so-called ‘fair use’ you will start billing me at exorbitant prices per mb... it might even be to your advantage if I use VOIP!
Power Because in the end, that’s what this is about. On Monday evening, Nokia released stage one of a major firmware update to the worldwide population of n900s. And all were happily updated. Except the Vodaphone ones. Because Vodaphone has, in its wisdom, decided not to allow its users access. Those lucky people able to get Voda-contracts with unbranded phones are fine. Those with slave-phones will be denied the update until Vodaphone sees fit – and with it the next, important update and access to the ovi store. Vodaphone is holding to itself power that rightly belongs with the customer.
Except this is Maemo: any user can change the firmware simply and easily. That’s because it’s linux-built – to empower the user. There are questions being asked about voiding warranties and the like, but there are n900s out there casting off their voda-chains and claiming liberty.
So somewhere in my anger I feel a tiny glimmer of hope: maybe the arrival of Maemo in the mass market signals the beginning of a new relationship between manufacturers, network providers and end users. A relationship where the very firmware itself determines who holds power – and it’s not the network.
But in the meanwhile the bear will go on growling. If I could just decide who I’m growling at.