Help File: Some hardware and software are easy to break from; others will try to trap you

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, July 4, 2010; G01

The Fourth of July should not be a day to stay indoors and fuss with computers, gadgets or any of the other things discussed here every week.

But sometime after the barbecues and the fireworks of Independence Day, it's worth spending a few moments thinking about your dependence on the software and services that you rely on every day.

Can you fire any of these products if they don't measure up? How much suffering would taking your business elsewhere entail?

The answers vary depending on where you look and how much you'll like them.

Let's begin with the good news.

Pictures are the easiest case, as cameras, photo-editing programs and other picture-capable hardware and software share a common, open format, JPEG (short for "Joint Photographic Experts Group"). You can take a photo with a Nikon camera, open it in a Microsoft program running on a Sony computer, move it into Apple's iPhoto, save it to a USB flash drive and use that to view the shot on a Samsung TV without losing any of the image.

At worst, you'll have to re-create what computing professionals call "metadata" -- the data about your pictures, such as captions and their placement in photo albums.

If you write word-processing documents, crunch numbers in spreadsheets or put together slideshow presentations, you also have more freedom than ever. Although one company's formats -- those Microsoft created for its Office suite -- dominate the field, they have become a shared standard after years of work by other developers and more recent moves by Microsoft to document them.

You might not see every wrinkle of a complex Word, Excel or PowerPoint file if you open it in competing (and often cheaper) applications such as Google Docs, OpenOffice, Corel's WordPerfect Office or Apple's iWork, but you will see the substance of your work.

You shouldn't have to feel tied down to an e-mail service or program, either, but not all offer the same liberty to leave.

If you use your Internet provider's e-mail, for example, you can employ any standard mail program -- I suggest the free, open-source Mozilla Thunderbird on a PC, Apple's Mail on a Mac -- to download and keep your messages and contacts list. (Microsoft's Outlook, an expensive but widely used option, has historically been a bit of a data trap, but Microsoft is finally opening up that program's file format too.)

But if you change providers, you'll have to remind your correspondents of the new address.

What if you use a separate Web-mail site? You can do away with the change-of-address ritual after replacing Internet providers, but you risk losing old mail if you want to change Web-mail services -- or if a malware or phishing attack hijacks your account.

Yahoo, for instance, doesn't let users download their messages to their computers unless they sign up for a $20-a-year "Yahoo Plus" plan, while Microsoft's Hotmail and Google's Gmail provide that offline access for free.

Unfortunately, the other telecom service almost all of us rely on -- wireless calling and data -- remains a world of long-term contracts defended by early-termination fees. Those restrictions are meant to ensure the carrier, which subsidizes the price of a new phone through higher monthly fees, won't get ripped off. T-Mobile, however, offers discounted, no-contract rates for people who bring their own device.

If you use Verizon Wireless or Sprint, you can forget about taking your phone to other carriers. AT&T and T-Mobile allow that interoperability, but AT&T exempts the iPhone from this policy and makes customers wait much longer before it will unlock other phones for use on compatible carriers.

Television, whether delivered by cable, satellite or fiber-optic cable, is even worse. Bringing your own tuning and recording hardware has been made difficult to impossible by the companies that sell these services. And the one company to make a serious run at challenging that monopoly, TiVo, seems to think it unimportant to help its users move recordings from one TiVo to another.

Finally, there's the music, video and books many of us download. Although music, after a few mistaken years, is sold almost everywhere as unlocked and open files (either MP3 or AAC), the movie and publishing industries seem in no hurry to follow the recording industry's progress.

As a result, the movie or the book that you think you own arrives encumbered by "digital rights management" software that prohibits you from watching or reading on the device or in the software of your choice. You can't lend or sell these titles as you could a DVD or a printed book. You can't reuse part of these works in a parody or as part of a commentary.

The DRM deal can be a fair bargain on a rental that implies no such freedom of use. But for those of you buying movies in iTunes and collecting bestsellers on a Kindle, today and every day could be Dependence Day.

Living with technology, or trying to?

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