iPod mystery chip sparks DRM rumor

Gentlemen, start your tinfoil hats! Apple's new iPod Shuffle moves the control buttons from the player onto its earbud cable. Tech enthusiasts who dismantled the control unit have found a mystery chip, marked 8A83E3. What does it do?

Truth is, no one knows -- except for Apple and its manufacturing partners. But bloggers at Boing Boing and iLounge are convinced it's an "authentication chip" whose job is to verify to the iPod that the headphone cable is either from Apple, or from a licensed third-party maker such as Etymotic, whose ER-6i earbuds are a popular iPod upgrade.

If the new Shuffle really does check for the presence of an authentication chip, it will raise the prices of replacement earbuds, both by adding the authentication hardware and, presumably, by requiring earbud makers to pay a license fee to Apple that allows them to do so. In return, third-party hardware makers get to protect their profit margins by locking out cheapo competitors.

The result for Shuffle buyers -- presumably -- is that any earbuds they already own won't work with the new Shuffle, even with an adapter that contains the control buttons.

But it's hard for me to take bloggers' overreactions seriously. iLounge editor-in-chief Jeremy Horwitz says this isn't just an annoyance, it's a nightmare!

This is, in short, a nightmare scenario for long-time iPod fans: are we entering a world in which Apple controls and taxes literally every piece of the iPod purchase from headphones to chargers, jacking up their prices, forcing customers to re-purchase things they already own, while making only marginal improvements in their functionality? It's a shame, and one that consumers should feel empowered to fight.

I'm having trouble working up the foam around my mouth. I wonder how many people who buy the new Shuffle will actually have a different set of earbuds they want to plug into it? Even then, for many this will be a convenient excuse to buy newer earbuds.

Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Fred von Lohmann has the best take on the mystery chip: "Why have so many of the reviews of iPods failed to notice the proliferation of these Apple authentication chips?" Good question, because if Microsoft did the exact same thing, the Internet would be on fire by now.

This story, "iPod mystery chip sparks DRM rumor" was originally published by The Industry Standard.

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