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Unlocking mobile phones is now illegal (sort of)

For the past week or so, the major buzz across the Internet has been about how it’s suddenly against the law to unlock your cell phone from whatever carrier it’s attached to before the contract runs out.  There’s been a good amount of fear-mongering and ranting about the amount of corporate influence on American law.  While I think much of the outcry has been justified, some of it hasn’t, and I’d like to take a careful look at what this announcement is and is not, and what it will mean for mobile phone users going forward.

First we need to define our terms.  Just what is “unlocking” and how is it related to “jailbreaking” or “rooting”?  “Unlocking” refers to using a code to remove a software or firmware lock in a mobile phone, allowing it to be used on more than one provider’s network. It has little to do with how the user interacts with the phone’s OS.  “Jailbreaking” refers to using software or hardware exploits to gain root access to the operating system on iOS devices.  “Rooting” is essentially the same process, except as practiced on Android devices.  They’re only related insofar as the sorts of folks who are interested in jailbreaking or rooting devices are also often the same folks who want to unlock them from specific carriers.

So now that we know what we’re talking about, let’s specify what this law doesn’t do: it does not make jailbreaking or rooting illegal.  Those processes are still exempted from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), as they have been since the Electronic Freedom Foundation won said exemptions in July 2010. However, the US Copyright Office and the Librarian of Congress began reviewing those exemptions (and others) last October, and decided that the original exemption for unlocking phones was no longer necessary, given how much easier it is for consumers to either purchase unlocked devices in the first place, or  just have their carriers unlock their phones for them. (Having worked for several mobile phone carriers, I can tell you that one of the first things they teach you is how to tell customers that “we’re sorry, we won’t unlock your phone; so sorry for the inconvenience…thanks and have a nice day!”)

Once the Copyright Office and Librarian of Congress arrived at this decision, they granted a 90-day grace period for users to get their phones unlocked.  That time ran out on Saturday.  So, what this means as of now is that only “legacy” phones are still eligible to be unlocked with no penalty.  Newly-minted phones, not so much.  After all, mobile providers are selling these phones (that are really miniature computers) for a ridiculously subsidized fee, knowing that they’ll recoup their money over the life of a 2-year contract.  If consumers were able to unlock their phones, why would they be motivated to stay with a carrier if they didn’t want to?

You’re probably not going to have Johnny Law knocking on your door if you do decide to unlock your phone before your contract runs out with your carrier.  However, you may have a little harder time finding a third-party business to help you with that unlock.  Those third-party businesses could also face civil and criminal penalties of anywhere from $200 to $500,000 for unlocking phones.  It all comes down to whether carriers intend to try to root out phones with unsanctioned unlocks – and if they do so, how aggressively.  We’ll be watching, because it’s our money too.

 
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Finding A Lost iPhone

It happens to everyone: you put your phone down and get sidetracked, you leave it in a public place, or any of the multiple ways to lose a phone. You might be like me and have a terrible memory, which would lead you to forget where you put your phone. For some, this could be devastating; lost passwords, emails, contacts… the missing information may seem irretrievable. However, this isn’t the case; Apple has done a great job making your lost device recoverable. Your iPhone comes equipped with a few ways to find it, so don’t worry!

The most standard way to find a lost device is with a feature called ‘Find My iPhone.’ Say you’ve lost your phone; after logging on to iCloud.com using your Apple ID, you’ll be able to click the ‘Find My iPhone’ tab and instantly get a layout using Google Maps and a nice green dot showing where your device is. If that doesn’t help you locate it, there are a few features that can assist. If you click the ‘Devices’ button, you’ll get a full list of your devices. Selecting one will allow you to play a sound that’ll ring your phone – maybe you’re sitting on it and don’t even realize it. For more security, you can remotely lock your phone using the ‘Lost Mode’ button. This will allow you set a code to keep your device secure. If you feel like you need even more security, there’s also an option to erase your iPhone remotely as well. Be cautious when using this – it’s definitely irreversible, unless you have your files backed up. One thing to keep in mind is that your phone does have to be on to track it.

 

Find My iPhone is a great way to recover your lost device.

 

Another extremely efficient app is called GadgetTrak. As of now, it’s $3.99 on the App Store, but it’s definitely cheaper than replacing a lost phone. GadgetTrak has many of the same features that Find My iPhone does, but with some modifications. It can take pictures of a potential thief so you’ll have some face recognition. Of course, it comes with location tracking, which can be remotely activated from any computer with internet access. You’ll be able to send push notifications to the phone to allow a person who has recovered your device the chance to return it.

There are a multitude of other applications that can be used to locate a lost phone. Look around the App Store and see which one fits you best. Spending $4-5 for a high-end app is much more appealing than going to an Apple store to explain that you need to replace a lost or stolen phone.

 
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iPhone Rumor Roundup – Let’s Do the “Math”

The ink has barely dried on the credit card bills for Christmas and already there are rumors in the air of new Apple hardware for the year to come.  Specifically, gadget fans and investors alike are speculating about a smaller, lighter iPhone. This hypothetical device is said to be less expensive, although Apple has historically not paid too much attention to price points – and certainly can’t be accused of producing anything that would belong in a bargain bin!  However, CEO Tim Cook seemed to have put  damper on the idea of such a device, commenting at the D10 conference:

“Our North Star is to make the best product. Our goal isn’t to make the design for this price point or this schedule, or line up other things, or to have x number of phones. It’s to build the best. There’s not a policy or commandment that ‘I shalt have one phone…’, it’s about making the best. If we find we can do more than one… but do we have to? … One thing is that we’re not fragmented. Look at the percentage of users who upgraded to iOS 5. We have one App Store. We have one phone with one screen size, one resolution. So it’s pretty simple if you’re a developer.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg then asked Cook, “Why can’t you make a more affordable new iPhone?” to which Cook replied, “We could do that. I’m not going to conjecture.”

As if that rumor weren’t enough, there are now stories coming from China of a device called the “iPhone Math”. Chinese and Taiwanese media sources have reported that this device would feature a 4.8-inch touchscreen and an 8-megapixel camera. On top of all that, there’s a report of even a third mystery iPhone, said to have a 12-megapixel camera. (Incidentally, there also questions about the name “Math”, and reports that it could have been a mistranslation from Chinese to English…)

We may hear announcements of either new hardware or new software (iOS 7) at WWDC 2013, and the longest we’ll have to wait is for the customary iPod/iTunes/music event in the fall.  I, for one, can’t wait to see what the folks in Cupertino have in store.

 
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CES 2013 and Apple – A Look Back

The 2013 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week seemed to come and go, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Or maybe just a collective, whispered “Meh”.  Silicon Valley titans such as Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft were mostly conspicuous by their absence, though their products were all over the showroom floor.  In fact, a Google search for “Apple absent CES” turned up around 2.3 million hits.

That said, the iconic computer and device maker cast its long shadow over the week-long conference, as vendors and bloggers alike were toting Apple gear to show off their own wares or cover the show itself.  Companies as varied as Otterbox, Ford Motor Co., Crayola and Belkin all had iPhone and/or iPad accessories to demo at the show.  However, as cool as all the smartwatches and cases and stands and kid-friendly iPad art and app accessories were, one item outshone them all:

The iPotty.

That’s right, the iPotty.  And it pretty much does just exactly what you’d expect something with that name to do.  It’s a toddler-safe iPad case with moisture-resistant screen cover – that’s attached to a front-facing potty chair.  Anyone who’s ever toilet trained a child knows how important it is to keep said child parked on the potty long enough for them to do their business.  This is where the iPad comes in. A toddler who’s playing Angry Birds or watching one of the umpteen episodes of Yo Gabba Gabba that Mommy downloaded from iTunes isn’t as likely to get bored or distracted before Nature has taken its course.

There’s an argument to be made, I suppose, that kids are already exposed to enough technology without it creeping into the bathroom too. Also, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no “screen time” at all for children 2 and under. Not gonna lie, though; if this potty chair (and the iPad attached to it!) had existed when I was toilet training my son, I probably would have jumped on it.

 
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You Just Got an iPhone; Merry Christmas! (Sort of…)

One of the final viral stories of 2012 was about a middle schooler from Massachusetts whose mom gave him an iPhone for Christmas.  She also gave him an 18-point contract to go with it, and made it clear that if the young man didn’t sign, no iPhone for him!  Although I don’t know this family (and indeed live on the opposite side of the country from them), I have an interest in their story as the mother of a high schooler.

I’ve had wireless phone service with T-Mobile since 2006, and I started out with a family plan for my kiddo and me that continues (mostly unchanged) to this day.  We both began with “dumb” slider phones since it’s what we were able to afford.  In fact, we actually used more minutes than data back then, and I developed my habit of texting in full sentences as a way of setting an example for my then-preteen.  Honestly, I was more concerned about his spelling and grammar than the amount and type of messages he might have been sharing with his friends! How quaint such concerns seem now, in a time of sexting and cyber-bullying and stuff on the Internet that never goes away *ever*…

I never sat down to have the kind of talk with my kiddo that this mom had, and since I’e read her list I’m somewhat conflicted.  I agree with the vast majority of the rules she lays out, especially the ones about not being ruled by technology or missing out on human interaction, and especially about not using it to be mean or hurtful to others.  Honestly, it’s the first and the fourth rules that leave a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.  She starts the contract by saying “It is my phone.  I bought it.  I pay for it.  I am loaning it to you.  Aren’t I the greatest?”  While this is absolutely true (and I reminded my own kiddo of this a few times since he’s had a phone), the tone she takes here seems a little smug for my personal taste.  I’m not wild about her requirement that a 13-year-old has to hand in his phone to a parent every night at 7:30 pm either. (Full disclosure – this mostly rankles my inner teenager, who’s a little closer to the surface more often than I like to admit.)

Still, as the mom of a teenager, I’m glad to see another mom working to make sure that her kid isn’t going to be one of those insufferable little twerps I so often fantasize about kicking when I see them in public.  My own observation has been that far too many parents are far too unwilling to say the word “NO” to their children.  So on the whole, this contract is a good thing and far less extreme than many of the headlines about it would make it seem.  It may not be best way for every parent to go with every kid, but it’s certainly a great place to start a conversation. (By the way, NPR had a lovely interview with Janell Burley Hofmann about the contract on Tuesday’s Talk of the Nation.  It’s really worth a listen.)

 

 

 
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