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In the past few months, you've heard the whispers—that Apple has lost its way, that it was on the road to becoming that most terrible of things— the new Microsoft. Issues like charging for ringtones and bricking unlocked iPhones have got people talking, if by “talking” you mean typing WITH CAPS LOCK ON.

But just in the past few days, Apple’s made at least three moves that could be a break in the clouds, reassuring me that Apple’s not ready to join the ranks of the soulless corporations just yet.

Dropping DRM, part the second

Apple made a big splash earlier this year by adding DRM-free music to the iTunes Store. Despite the existence of some DRM-free vendors, such as eMusic, Steve Jobs put himself on the line to say that Apple would prefer to sell music without DRM, and he put his money where his mouth was by partnering with label EMI to make that a reality. Now, Apple has lowered the price of all its DRM-free tracks to 99 cents, matching what it charges for its standard protected tracks.

I’m not ascribing altruistic motives to Jobs and Company—with Amazon’s new MP3 store offering DRM-free tracks for as little as 89 cents per track, paying premium for a principle wasn’t going to be sound business for much longer. (We can debate endlessly whether the higher audio quality is even distinguishable by most people.)

But more than the price drop, it’s the addition of other independent labels to the DRM-free mix that really heartens me. Some of these labels and acts have been clamoring to sell their music DRM-free since Apple first proclaimed their commitment to free and open music. It doesn’t hurt that adding them to the iTunes catalog bolsters Steve Jobs’ prediction that over half of the music on iTunes would be DRM-free by the end of the year; the Apple CEO now has two and a half months to come up with roughly another million songs to meet that goal. One more major label would put it well over the edge, and signs are that the market is moving that way, thanks largely to Apple.

iPhone, unlocked

Despite heavy demand for an iPhone that wasn’t tied to any particular carrier, you’re still pretty much restricted to using AT&T unless you want to undertake some risky hacking with the chance that the next iPhone update may very well leave you with a shiny paperweight or, at best, an expensive iPod touch. However, in conjunction with the news that Apple had partnered with mobile service vendor Orange to offer the iPhone in France came word that a legally unlocked iPhone would be available in that country as well.

We don’t yet know what such an iPhone will cost—unsubstantiated figures of €999 have made the rounds—though it’s likely to be far more than the €399 cost of the tethered model in France.

Yes, the decision on this front was more or less made for Apple due to a French law that prevents the exclusive bundling of a cell phone with a service provider—even so, this news encourages me that an unlocked iPhone could make its way to U.S. shores, especially if demand in France for the carrier-free model proves robust despite the price premium. And to those who wave the alleged five-year exclusivity deal between Apple and AT in my face, I remind you that Apple has an army of lawyers and a pretty hefty bank account—two elements that I imagine can get them out of pretty much any contract up to and including a deal with the devil himself.

Let’s get this third-party started

Besides bricking unlocked iPhones, the 1.1.1 update that Apple issued had one other major negative: it locked down the clever routes that hackers had been using to load third-party applications on the iPhone. Unlike the issue over unlocking, which was understandable if irritating, it was far more frustrating to me to see Apple taking away functionality to which I’d grown accustomed.

And then, as if trumpeted from on high, Steve Jobs issued one of his increasingly common missives via Apple’s Hot News page, declaring that a software development kit for the iPhone was coming in February 2008, but that Apple was still trying to balance that freedom with making sure that the iPhone remained secure and safe.

It remains to be seen just how free and open this software development will be: Jobs spoke of rival Nokia’s practice of requiring digitally signatures on applications, a scheme which would allow Apple to more tightly control which programs could be run. While promising, it’s the details here which will make or break third-party development. Still, it’s hard not to feel as though my prayers have been answered.

The side of the angels

None of this takes away from the fact that Apple’s made some (to my mind) questionable decisions in recent months. But it’s a company and companies don’t always do right by their users. These latest decisions suggest to me that Apple is still listening to its customers, and at the end of the day wants to make them happy. Because, if nothing else, happy people are much more willing to part with their money. The Apple we know and love understands this more than most companies, and if these recent moves are any indication, it hasn’t lost sight of that yet.

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