IMEI Based Copy Protection


In case you've never bought any native software for the Series 60 phone from a site like Handango or some other site, let me explain how it works. The other day I saw a review of a Bluetooth WinAmp remote controller for my Nokia 6600 called ControlFreak. It's a great little app and after trying out the trial, I eagerly threw down my 7.95€ for the full version to get the cool graphs and artist names, etc. It's one of the nicest looking apps I've seen for Series 60 phones and at a very fair price.

Now during the purchase process, as per normal for Symbian applications, I had to enter in my IMEI number of my mobile phone - it looks like this: 351525000236421. This is the "International Mobile Equipment Identity" number for GSM phones and uniquely identifies my mobile from all the other billion GSM phones that exist. The more user-friendly apps will display this number for you in a menu, but otherwise you can get to your number by typing in *#06# into the main screen of your phone. The idea is that this number can be grey or black listed by the carriers to prevent stolen phones from working, etc. But what the software developers have done is incorporate this number into their applications as a security measure. And this is where the problem is.

Once I went through the purchase process for ControlFreak online, the company then sent me an "unlock" code which is tied directly to my phone's IMEI number. The algorithm they use in the app makes sure that unless someone cracks the application (which sadly, happens frequently) this application is tied to this exact mobile phone. Not to the memory card which I installed it, not to me - the customer - but to the phone.

This is fair - to an extent. I bought one license, I should only be able to use this licence on one phone. But what happens if I upgrade phones? What happens if I simply move the MMC card from say, my old 3650 to my new 6600? Well, what happens is those applications break and you need to beg the company for a new code (doubtful) or buy a new license for the new phone since your other code still works for the old phone. But what if you don't use the old phone any more? Well, basically tough luck.

I know I've written about this before, but I'm being very clear now because I don't know if Nokia, Symbian and the rest realize what they are setting themselves up for. This is a *major* inhibitor for upgrades - people aren't going to pay for all their software again every time they buy a new smart phone! This may seem like a problem that's *way* out in the future as the vast majority of cellphone users haven't even moved to smart phones yet, let alone are upgrading to different models. But that's what people like me are here for.

Let's take another mobile platform in consideration - the oft-maligned Palm. (Yes, yes, I know I'm the one usually doing the maligning. Sue me.) Palm has an incredibly upgrade friendly software installation process. How friendly? Well when I bought my wife's new Zire 31 a few weeks ago, I simply pulled out her profile that was associated with her ancient Palm Vx, clicked on the sync button and she instantly had all her new apps on her new Palm. The old Palm is long gone, so no software developers were screwed in this process. You could make a valid argument that many, many Palm users upgrade because of this very reason - and that PalmOne continues to exist for this reason. How many people do you know who have several Palms? I know a few (including myself.)

This isn't the case at all when it comes to S60 devices is it? Let me give another personal example: I have have a shiny new Nokia 7610 sitting in my bag, yet I'm still using my 6600. Why? Well, I have no desire to pay for Opera, Wireless IRC, SlovoEd, NetFront, TomTom, Interstellar Flames and SkyForce again. And now that I've bought the cool-ass ControlFreak, I'm even *less* excited about paying for it again. I've actually purchased several other S60 apps that I had to leave on my wife's 3650 because I didn't feel like buying them again (MGS for one, and a few others). (And honestly, even if I did get all those apps upgraded for free tomorrow, the process of moving my contacts, etc. to the new phone will be painful at best - but that's whole other bitch). This is a real problem.

I'm honestly not sure what Microsoft is doing about software and whether its apps are tied to an exact phone or not, but I for one was particularly disapointed with Symbian's new Signed Driver program they just announced. I was hoping that they would be solving this problem for the end user by coming up with a way of helping the software developers secure their apps, but without screwing the end user in the process - instead it's just a basic certification program with digital signatures. We need more!

Basically, I'm quite happy to pay for cool software, I'm just not happy to pay for it twice if I'm not using it in two places. I think that's pretty natural, no?

Nokia? Symbian? Listen to me. I'm an early adopter. I'm up to my fourth Series 60 phone and counting - there are probably only a few hundred people on Earth for whom this is true. (Maybe less). Get the third party developers to stop tying the apps to the IMEI number by providing them other more flexible ways of securing their applications. Consumers won't be tied to the platform if you make it so hard and costly to upgrade as to move to another. People will move. If for nothing less than spite.

Anyways, now that the 7610 is available in Europe and Asia, I'm going to finally get around to doing a more thorough review. This was going to be part of it, but I figured I'd break it out since I think it's a real problem that needs more attention. Stay tuned.


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