Like a predatory loan officer or an unstable partner, technology companies have an obsession with locking you down. Here are some of the worst examples of proprietary products that leave you trapped, broke and angry.
The iPod Plug
While it in some ways seems like an example of a proprietary technology done right (it's solid, supports lots of connection types and has become basically ubiquitous), Old 30-Pin has quite a bit to feel bad about. Consider this: It single-handedly obliterated the non-iPod accessory market. Almost every MP3 player dock, FM transmitter or interfacing device supports this port exclusively—or with some feeble aux plug (cable not included) in the rear. And why shouldn't they? There are more 30-pin-jack iPods out there than there are all other MP3 players combined.
But it means Apple is stuck. An abrupt switch would be a disaster for third parties and customers alike (consider the outcry when the iPhone 3G wasn't compatible with some older 30-pin accessories) and it's not clear what they could switch to. Micro-USB probably doesn't have enough pins for all the various functions the port should serve, and switching to a solution that would, say, force users to connect both a power plug and and audio cable to a dock would seem like a step backwards. But hey, just because it's currently practical and ubiquitous doesn't mean it isn't evil. It's because of you, iPod jack, that my Sansa has about as many docking prospects as the average Giz writer.
Sprint and Verizon's Secret Shame: CDMA
To the end user, CDMA and GSM don't seem very different—Sprint, a CDMA carrier, offers the same services as AT&T, a GSM carrier—except when it comes to how they handle phones.
GSM phones are identified by the SIM card that they carry, which can be moved between phones at the user's will. Not so with America's other wireless standard. Effectively, a CDMA phone is like a GSM phone with the SIM card welded to its socket. Your CDMA phone is permanently locked to your carrier, and your mobile connection is permanently bound to your handset—unless your carrier is kind enough to authorize a transfer to another phone.
The presumably intentional effect is that there's no market for 3rd party hardware in CDMA, which is fine for carriers, shitty for customers. Worst of all, there's no good reason for this. CDMA SIM cards exist. They're called R-UIM cards, but US carriers are in no rush to implement them.
The Battle of the Redundant Audio Formats
There was a time when it wasn't clear which stupid format would reign supreme, Microsoft's WMA or Apple's AAC. [Note: Yes, Apple didn't invent AAC. However, they are the only reason any of us have heard of it.] While each technically brought improved sound quality, they were both bastards born of the same greedy combination: the desire for DRM and the unwillingness to pay MP3 encoder/decoder royalties. Your AACs wouldn't play on your Zen; your WMAs wouldn't work on your iPod; your ATRAC3s wouldn't work on anything. These formats only grew popular because people accidentally used them to rip their music, and later, because they were an unavoidable part of the digital music purchasing process.
With wider format support in new players, the slow death of the all-you-can-download rental WMA stores and Apple's new "our bad!" attitude towards audio DRM, it seems like we're taking a healthy step back to good ole' em-pee-threes. And while iPods will never play WMA, iTunes does convert 'em. And it's nice to see more Microsoft products supporting AAC, which Apple still won't shake off.
A Unique Phone Charger for Every Phone
Even—or rather, especially—when phone plugs were only for electricity, every goddamn manufacturer had their own exclusive, silly connector for dumping current into batteries. Today, little has changed, and as virtually anyone who owns a cellphone knows, this sucks. A lost charger means your phone is out of commission, and because of carrier subsidies, a new charger sometimes costs more than the phone itself did.
And that's how we arrive at the reason for this stupid situation: Unique chargers=$$$ for cellphones makers. This would explain why the first substantive call for standardization came so recently, and why Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, Apple and pretty much everyone else still, in 2008, enforce phone-charger monogamy. And if you think phones are a pain, try finding a replacement charger for your Bluetooth headset. Good luck.
A Raw File By Any Other Name...
R-A-W. If you care about digital photography, these three letters form the most beautiful sound in the English language. Raw images, supported by almost every new DSLR and an increasing number of point-and-shoots, are made up of the 'raw' image data, pulled directly from your camera's sensor, letting you change all kinds of parameters—white balance, exposure and noise reduction, to name a few—instead of letting the camera pick them automatically during the shooting. And you can make infinite changes and tweaks long after the photo has been taken.
It would seem that by now importing raw files should be as easy as transferring JPEGs. Well, it's not. The problem is that almost every camera maker has insisted on using their own slightly different version, meaning that you either have to use your camera's supplied raw conversion software (almost always a steaming pile) or invest in a wide-support program like Photoshop, Aperture or Lightroom—and make sure it has the right compatibility. Come on guys, Adobe gave you a perfectly fine, royalty-free raw format back in 2004. Use it.
So Many Memory Cards
For years, everyone had their own memory card format: Sony products used Memory Sticks, Olympus used xD, Fujifilm used SmartMedia and so on... they all thought they had the heir to the 35mm/CD/Zip Drive throne. It was adorable! Now, it's not. While we were all busy stockpiling one soon-to-be-obsolete memory cards and multi-compatible (bit never totally compatible) readers, most of the electronics industry was aligning itself with a winner.
Two, actually—or maybe three. SD cards (backed by Panasonic) are cheap, compact and capacious and only getting better, with MicroSD as its tiny phone version. Meanwhile, beefier, more durable Compact Flash cards suit the serious photogs. The rest of you: You all do the exact same thing! Please die.
For Our Earphones Only: Non-Standard Headset Jacks
When a little metal trim kept the original iPhone from accepting regular old 3.5mm headphones, a lot of people almost blew a gasket, and rightfully so. It seemed hopeless: Even a phone that was more iPod than handset couldn't resist the allure of proprietary earphones.
Phones have always been terrible for this. The same varied, awkward orifices that charged your old phone probably served as its headset connector too, leaving you stuck with the flimsy, tinny OEM earbuds or an easy-to-lose adapter to deal with. For a while though, it seemed like companies were starting to catch the drift, as standard 3.5mm headphone/mic jacks became more and commonplace in music phones. But a Nokia or two is little comfort; HTC's newest Android phone, a multimedia powerhouse, only has a USB port. Apple's new Shuffle—a friggin' iPod-only works with the supplied earphones or special replacements. Grief ensues.
Sony's Entire Oeuvre
The story of Sony is like an exaggerated summary of the history of proprietary goofs. Sony entering a new market=Sony introducing a new, frustratingly exclusive format, plug, codec or device standard. With audio, it was MiniDiscs and ATRAC; on the PSP, you got UMD; for cameras and other portable devices, the Memory Stick. In video, there was Betamax, Laserdisc, HDV, and now Blu-ray. Yeah, this last one is sorta successful, but only because Sony decided to fight like there was no tomorrow to beat its rival format. [Blam: I'm not apologizing for the past, but Sony's promised to better about open formats going forward.] It worked this time, but God only knows what Sony labs have in store for us, and our shrinking wallets, next.
Did we leave out any nasty ones, like Nintendo's many accessories, or an Apple USB port that doesn't take all USB products? If you have a good one, throw it into a comment below.