Maybe I’m the one dim bulb in the chandelier, but why do so many people want to unlock their iPhone, and for that matter, what does it mean to unlock the phone anyway? I can’t read any Apple-related Web site nowadays without 25% of the news being about this, that or the other person who figured out some way to unlock the phone?
It is a pretty weird phenomenon, actually, the zeal with which hackers are trying to figure out how unlock the Apple iPhone and the commensurate enthusiasm with which Apple-related sites from The Unofficial Apple Weblog to Macworld are reporting their day-to-day progress.
Or is it?
Apple has always sold a locked, proprietary operating system, paired with its own hardware. Years ago there were clone Macs on the market – I had one, and it was great – but nowadays the only hardware you can run Mac OS X on is from Apple Computer. If Microsoft said you had to buy a Microsoft PC to run Windows, everyone would go bonkers and the government would step in. Heck, if there was a custom version of Windows for Dell computers and Dell said that it was designed to only run on Dell-branded gear, people would be darn upset. But Apple just zooms right along, all forgiven, as long as they keep releasing nice looking, clean, elegantly designed software and hardware. (I should know, I have five Macs in my office right now)
When Apple introduced the iPod, we saw the same sort of thing: if you want to put music on your iPod, you were forced to use Apple’s proprietary iTunes software.The result? A great pairing of hardware and software – when it works – and a cottage industry of software developers who reverse engineer the iPod and offer up third party solutions for getting into it and doing what you want. Two standouts: Senuti and ipodcopy.
When Apple released the iPhone, it’s no surprise at all that these same “circumvent the system” sort of hackers promptly start exploring its capabilities and figuring out how to manipulate the music, photographs, data files, and even ringtone library, without using any Apple software. Why? Partially because it’s an interesting challenge, and partially because many people (myself include) believe that if you buy a device, you should have the right to use it as you desire, not as the manufacturer requires.
I switched cellular service from Verizon to Cingular (now AT&T) when I bought my Apple iPhone: why should I be required to do so when I was a happy Verizon customer for years? Because Apple had cut a deal with Cingular as their cellular service provider, an exclusive deal, and the code in the phone that controls that activation capability is the lock that so bothers people with the phone.
Want to use an Apple iPhone with Verizon, T-Mobile or another carrier? If you could just “unlock” the phone, you could activate it against any cellular network that supported it. And since it’s just a GSM phone, that should encompass quite a few alternatives. If it was unlocked.
And so that’s where all the interest comes from and that’s why the media is so interested in the story too. It’s a sort of digital David and Goliath situation, where the individual hackers are toiling away in their bedrooms trying to figure out what The Big Corporation (Apple) has done to lock the phone into the Cingular/AT&T network. Crack that, and you can open up the phone to anyone who wants to buy one and use it, regardless of their cellular carrier.
Make sense? Me, I’d just be worried that a software update would squeeze me back onto the Cingular/AT&T network, just as many of the Sony PSP updates are to add more blocks to hackers who have torn it apart and added lots of cool capabilities. Anti-consumer? Well, I think that depends on how you look at it, and what side of the purchase transaction you’re on.
Personally, I think it’s fascinating and wonderful that so many smart people are working out how the iPhone works and how to make it more useful and more fun. Heck, that’s why I bought the phone in the first place. Now it’s up to Apple to play nice with the community, for once, rather than make it harder and harder for innovation to occur away from 1 Infinite Loop [Apple's main street address in Cupertino, California].
How about you? Do you have an Apple iPhone and would you be interested in having it unlocked so you could use it with any cellular carrier you desire?
ps: don’t forget to check out all the other iphone help I have here on the site too!