Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Techie Mystery: Why Did Israel Ban the iPad?

By MATTHEW KALMAN / JERUSALEM Tuesday, Apr. 20, 2010

Not since Adam and Eve has the appearance of an Apple in the Holy Land caused such uproar. Israel is a wonderland of high-tech innovation but it is certainly no Garden of Eden for iPad users, who can expect to have their new Apple tablets confiscated on arrival by Israeli airport customs. El Al stewardess Alona Gur tells TIME she was one of the first people to lose her new iPad and she is furious about it. "I was in New York and I checked with the Israeli customs to see if it was OK to bring one and they said sure, just go through the red channel [that is, declaring it at customs] and pay the taxes," says Gur. "Two days later I arrived at Ben-Gurion and did exactly as they said, but that morning the Ministry of Communications ordered them to confiscate all iPads." "It's crazy," she says, "I feel as though I live in a fourth-world country. And the customs are charging me 45 shekels ($12) a day for storage until I can take it back to America."

The ban by the Israeli Ministry of Communications has left users fuming and techies baffled. Dozens of confiscated Apple tablets are now being stored at Ben-Gurion Airport until their owners collect them on their way out of the country. The ministry says the iPad's Wi-Fi system is configured for the United States and does not conform to the European standards used in Israel, so it operates at higher power levels and is liable to cause interference on the wireless frequency. "A consumer who imports a British car designed to drive on the left knows that in Israel we drive on the right and the car is not suitable for use in Israel," says ministry spokesman Yechiel Shavi. (See pictures of the unveiling of Apple's iPad.)

But others don't quite buy the reasoning. Aviv Eilon, a Tel Aviv attorney specializing in technology law, dismisses the automobile comparison as "demagogic." He says the iPad conforms to the European standards approved in Israel and uses the same Wi-Fi devices as other Apple computers already in use in the country. "This was really annoying. It was a nonsense explanation. I went to the FCC website and saw that the iPad already correlates with the European standards," he says. "Poor old Israel," says Harel Shattenstein, an analyst who blogs on rcrwireless.com and talkingmobile.com. "Even if the Wi-Fi standard is different it won't cause any danger because most of the wireless networks in Israel are private." (Read TIME's review of the iPad.)

Israeli experts say they cannot find any technical reason for the ministry's decision. "I can't understand why they are banning the iPad. I really don't know. It doesn't make sense and it disturbs me as a technology freak," says Dor Zakai, Operating Systems and Hardware Team Leader at John Bryce Training in Israel. "Now it's the iPad. What's next?"

One commentator, Aharon Etengoff, has openly speculated on his blog that the Ministry of Communications is acting to protect the monopoly of iDigital, Apple's sole official Israeli importer, which is owned by Chemi Peres, son of the Israeli president. There was no official comment from iDigital, but company executives there say they are also baffled by the ministry decision. The Ministry of Communications tells TIME it is in discussions with iDigital to determine "how and when the iPad can be allowed for harmless use in Israel at the earliest. The Ministry expects Apple's answers in a few days and believes that this issue will be resolved in satisfactory way very soon." (See the best travel gadgets of 2009.)

Alona Gur says she was told privately by a ministry official that the iPad was banned because it interferes with Israeli military frequencies. There was a similar problem when Bluetooth first came to Israel, forcing the military to release those frequencies for civilian use. But the spokesman for the Ministry of Communications says he had no information about that. "I don't know about the military frequencies," says Shavi.

Meanwhile, leaders of Israel's business community are concerned about the damage to the country's image as a leader in high-tech that has fueled Israel's economic revival. Robert Ilatov, a lawmaker who chairs a parliamentary sub-committee for the advancement of high-tech industries, wants the ban rescinded. "This has not earned us a lot of respect in the high-tech world. I have asked the minister to reconsider his decision because it doesn't seem to make any sense. I don't think they checked it sufficiently," Ilatov tells TIME. (See pictures of vintage computers.)

There has been a firestorm of protest in Israel's high-tech blogosphere, where one anonymous contributor offered the following advice: "The solution is simple. Go through the green channel, don't declare your iPad at customs, and you're sorted. The iPad works perfectly in Israel. I speak from experience. Mine arrived this morning."

No comments: