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Attention Apple Customers: Do You Feel Shackled?

I read a headline today, referring to iPad owners as people who are somehow “shackled” to Apple’s hardware/software ecosystem. It conveyed the image of slaves sitting in the bowels of an ancient ship, chained to their seats and forced to manage the oars used to propel the vessel.

Sometimes the stories I read about Apple and its corporate policies are so outlandish you wonder how they were approved by supposedly reasonable editors and publishers. The image they present is that Apple is engaged in an insidious scheme to control the personal computing and consumer electronics worlds by forcing you to use their products and accept the terms under which those products are sold.

Now in passing, aren’t PC makers under contract with Microsoft forced to pay a Windows license fee even for computers that don’t have Windows preloaded on them? Or did that requirement disappear in the days when Microsoft suffered that antitrust lawsuit? Can you demand that Nintendo allow you to hack the product to allow “unofficial” games to be loaded onto the device?

The point is that there are loads of gadgets sold that contain proprietary operating systems of one sort or another, which require you to use specific “compatible” apps or accessories. Tell me the next time you try to induce an unapproved third-party DVR to operate with a DirecTV or Dish Network satellite installation and let me know how it works out.

Apple doesn’t sell its gear by creating false illusions about what the products can or cannot do. You know, for example, that the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad all work strictly with the software available from the App Store. Yes, there are unofficial techniques to jailbreak these devices, but then you are on your own and you bear full responsibility if something goes wrong.

When it comes to Mac OS X, the user license specifically states that it’s only to be installed on an Apple branded personal computer. You buy the product with that knowledge, or not, if that’s what you prefer. In saying that, though, it’s also true that there’s an active online community that will guide you towards a successful installation on a regular PC. Apple has tolerated the practice, although they will strike out if you attempt to create a retail business out of selling so-called “Hackentoshes.”

Even Macworld magazine performed such an installation at one time. Apple didn’t come down on them in any discernible fashion. They weren’t confronted with the prospect of the loss of advertising revenue. Instead, readers realized that it’s possible to induce Mac OS X to operate after one of those unofficial installations, but there may be unexpected incompatibilities, particularly when Apple delivers a maintenance update. There’s no guarantee all Mac software will function as well as it does on a real Mac.

In the end, the practice is perfectly all right from the hobbyist standpoint. If you are a power user, comfortable with assembling and disassembling custom systems, have a good time. But if you expect the end result to function as your work computer, consider the cost in terms of the time you expend to make the box function reliably. If your time is worth anything at all, how much of the alleged savings you achieve from buying a cheap PC are wasted making it work properly with Mac OS X? Wouldn’t a real Mac be a better idea, particularly since Apple’s products have good reliability records? After a couple of years, when your old PC is worth nothing, you can still sell your used Mac and get a reasonable return from your investment.

But the real issue is this: You weren’t forced to buy an Apple product. You knew the score when you wrote that check or submitted your credit card number. However, the Mac is a pretty open platform insofar as being able to install Windows under Boot Camp or a virtual machine is concerned. With the latter, you can also install a number of different operating systems, in fact. That makes your Mac perhaps the most compatible computer on the planet.

When it comes to the iPhone and iPad, Apple has decided that you want something that’s simple to learn, simple to use, and doesn’t require lots of decisions to be made about how to customize the product to your tastes. A limited number of setup choices are available, but you also have a rich selection of apps, with the number expected to hit 200,000 in the very near future. The phrase “there’s an app for that,” is a cliché and a truism. There are very few useful apps that you can’t get on Apple’s mobile platform. Yes, there are software categories that Apple won’t touch, particularly in the realm of explicit material, but it’s not quite Disney World.

When it comes to computers, smartphones and tablet-based PCs, you have a choice. It doesn’t have to be Apple. You aren’t shackled to anything or anyone.