Thursday, January 03, 2008

Dumb Lawsuit of the week... er... day... Well, it's the US so who can tell

Information Week reports that Apple is being sued (again) for monopolistic practices such as (a) not playing WMA audio files on iPods even though the chips in the iPods support it (thus hurting competitors, one assumes) and (b) charging for more for a 4GB iPod than a 1GB given the difference in cost between the memory chips (thus hurting consumers, one assume).

It's our poor users who need WMA

Now, you can easily convert any music in your iTunes library into a CD. You can then play that music anywhere you can play music from a CD, which is to say anywhere. You can also easily export music from WMA format into ... oh wait, you can't. And you can't because Microsoft makes it hard. But if I'm in business selling digital music, I can't export music for iPods easily, because AAC is really proprietary, unlike WMA... Er, no wait. AAC isn't proprietary, WMA is. The only reason I would want to export music in WMA format is to restrict what my customers can do with it, and Apple is unfairly preventing me from doing that. Bastards.

This is a special deal, just for you

One of the principles in law is that if everyone does something for long enough and no-one objects to it, then it's pretty much legal. This is part of the English common law which is the framework within which US laws (and the US constitution) operate. There's no question that it's perfectly legal to sell the same product to different people for different prices. Academic licenses anyone? Barnes & Noble membership cards anyone? It's also perfectly legal to paint different names on the same product and sell it for different prices. (If not, Audis would be VWs.)

But is it moral?

Back in the day, IBM sold mainframes with 2MB of memory in them but, unless you paid for the full monty, they only switched on 1MB. When I was in school, the only difference between the cheap and expensive Casio calculators we were required to buy was that the expensive ones had more of the functions marked on them -- inside they were identical, and if you knew where the functions were you could use them on the cheaper calculators. Heck, Intel's 486SX CPUs were 486DX CPUs with the floating point unit burned off. Single-sided 3.5 inch floppy disks were double-sided disks with a hole punched in the plasic case.

The entire computer "overclocking" fad is a consequence of the fact different "speed" CPUs generally come off a single assembly line, and are simply tested at different speeds. Pass a test at 2GHz, and you're a 2GHz chip. Pass a test at 2.16GHz and you're a 2.16GHz chip. But if we don't have enough orders for 2.16GHz chips, we might sell chips that could have passed 2.16GHz tests as 2GHz chips, and in fact we generally do.

In all of these cases, companies -- for perfectly good reasons -- sold physically identical products for different prices, and this was -- oddly enough -- actually good for consumers. (It's cheaper to make large quantities of one thing than smaller quantities of two things -- so the companies generally made more money and the customers generally got cheaper products.)

Shouldn't law suits need to pass some kind of minimum sanity check? Criminal cases have grand jury hearings where, presumably, at least some cases get rejected out of hand.