Back in the early 1980s, I bought my first computer, a Compaq "luggable," a svelte 28-pound system which came with a built-in 9-in. monochrome display, 256K RAM (I splurged on extra memory), and two 5.25-in. floppy drives. It also came with a large sticker that warned that opening the machine for any reason would void the warranty.
Even at the time, this was pretty ridiculous. The idea behind PCs was that if you needed more memory, or wanted to swap one of the two floppy drives for a hard drive, or put in a better video card, you could simply open it up and install what you needed. However, Compaq seemed to be operating on the assumption that its customers weren't smart enough to drop in a new video card -- or that it could make a bit of extra cash by forcing them to pay a technician to do it. The company even made the cover of the machine nearly impossible to open unless you knew a particular pressure point to push down on.
This attitude didn't last very long -- the first time I called tech support for help, the technician immediately told me exactly how to open the computer and, by the way, you can ignore that sticker. Practicality and an awareness of the market had quickly convinced the suits at Compaq that their customers were going to do their own expansions, and they might as well live with it.
It appears that Apple may be learning the same lesson that Compaq learned 25 years ago -- but it took a decision by the Library of Congress to accomplish it. The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) made it illegal to unlock -- through technical means -- the restrictions that vendors put on their phones. Now the U.S. Copyright Office has ruled that "jailbreaking" an iPhone -- hacking it so that you can install an application that wasn't necessarily pre-approved by Apple -- is no longer a violation.
At least, not a violation of law. Apple can still consider it a violation of its own customer agreement and void your warranty or -- need I say it? -- brick your phone.
This will probably not make a huge difference to most iPhone users. Most are probably quite happy to live with the over 200,000 applications available in the App Store. And those who do decide to hack their phones -- either because the apps that they want are considered improper by Apple's decision makers, or because they just don't like to be limited -- aren't going to be too worried about their warranties.
But at least they won't find Federal agents knocking at their door.