New iPod shuffle contains tiny DRM?? chip in earbud

Chicago (IL) – When the new iPod shuffle was introduced last week it got a voice, but that’s not all. Websites like BoingBoing Gadgets began taking the new device apart to see what secrets its innards might reveal. During the deconstruction, a chip identified as 8A83E3 was discovered in the earbud of all places. Immediately everybody began claiming “DRM, DRM!” However, was that chip really part of some new DRM? Or is it something else entirely?

The iPod Shuffle earbud contains a tiny chip inside the plastic casing. The chip is only 2mm x 1mm in size. It has been identified as 8A8E3E, though it’s hard to make out in this image. Apple has not commented on the chip officially, but directed us to Monster Cable, an iPod Shuffle earbud maker who claims the chip allows signals to be sent from the earbud to the iPod Shuffle to change tracks, pause, volume up/down, etc.

While the iPod shuffle comes with earbuds from Apple, the desire by many to use third-party headphones is paramount. Many want the ability to block out more background noise, hear more bass, more treble, or whatever the case may be. As a result, several vendors began announcing they would create new iPod-Shuffle-compatible earbuds. So the question became: “iPod Shuffle compatible? Huh?”

As it turns out, due to Shuffle’s small size, Apple has introduced the ability to send control codes from the earbud down to the shuffle to allow tracks to be changed, volume up/down, pause, etc., without having to touch the device itself. Still, in a somewhat strange move, an Apple spokesman directed the accusatory DRM questions by BoingBoing (and others) to Kevin Lee, VP of marking and Strategic Business Development at another company called Monster Cable. That company plans a full line of compatible headphones with iPod Shuffle support.

Lee said, “You can quote me on this: it’s a control chip. There’s no authentication. There’s no DRM.” He explained how the chip is used, “I love to be able to control my music using headphones. Part of that reason is that the iPod is usually tucked away somewhere,” so why pull it out to change songs? He added, “There’s no magic behind it.”

Lee went on to say that he could not discuss the technology much further, stating there were contractual constraints on what he could publicly disclose. However, he made it clear that there Apple does not supply the chip, and that it has nothing to do with DRM.

His answer makes sense, but it’s still not an answer given directly by Apple. There is no Apple representative on the record saying, “No, it’s not DRM. It’s just a control chip allowing data between iPod Shuffle and earbuds for controlling the device.” It would be nice to get that official confirmation on the record.

As of right now we have some assurance that it is not a DRM device designed to keep non-iPod shuffle earbuds from working with the devices, either now or in the future following a firmware upgrade. But we are still waiting or definite confirmation.

If Apple has introduced earbud DRM, it won’t take the ravenous Internet junkies who live for challenges like this to decipher the communications between the 8A83E3 chip and the iPod Shuffle device. Once the protocols are decoded, the reality of the chip’s identity will be confirmed unto the public. Until then, it’s guaranteed via third party only.