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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Apple: Never say never

Why would anyone pick up a sleek, beautiful new $500 iPhone and take a soldering gun to it?You could almost say Apple Inc. issued a dare.Hackers got credit for another victory Friday, as news spread that a New Jersey teenager broke into his iPhone and reconfigured it so the machine could make calls via a wireless carrier other than AT&T.
The iPhone, available since late June, is supposed to work only with AT&T, which has a five-year exclusive contract. But limiting the touchscreen phone to a single carrier immediately was seen by many tech-savvy tinkerers as an invitation to assert their control over the device.Hacking, of course, has a long history in the digital age. On top of that, many cell phone aficionados are rankled by the idea that they often can't choose which carrier to provide service for a cool new phone.So it's no surprise that 17-year-old George Hotz's accomplishment in making his iPhone run on T-Mobile's network joins a host of claims by other hackers manipulating the Apple device.YouTube is filled with videos of people who appear to have created their own iPhone by using Apple's software on other mobile gadgets, including a T-Mobile Wing smart phone, a Sprint PPC-6800 and Microsoft Corp.'s Zune music player.Technology analyst Rob Enderle said others already have unlocked the iPhone by getting it to work with a competing carrier: "We should have downloadable applications for these things in a week."To do what Hotz accomplished takes plenty of skill -- and time. Hotz said he spent 500 hours on the project."He's been tinkering with it all summer," his father, also named George Hotz, said. "It shows it can be done, but it's not an easy task."In a video on YouTube, the bushy haired Hotz shows his iPhone running on T-Mobile's wireless network before he makes a call to a landline phone in his bedroom. Then, he removes the T-Mobile SIM card he inserted into the phone as additional evidence.Also in the video, Hotz said he worked with other hackers to complete the task. On Thursday, he published a 10-step guide on his blog, http://iphonejtag, but acknowledged they may be challenging.Technology blog Engadget on Friday reported successfully unlocking an iPhone using a different method that required no tinkering with the hardware, according to The Associated Press. The software was supplied by an anonymous group of hackers that apparently plans to charge for it.Representatives from Apple and AT&T would not comment on the hacked iPhone, although one representative questioned the validity of Hotz's hack.The hack is being seen as an interesting but harmless accomplishment, said Martin Dunsby, chief executive with Vollee Inc., a maker of games for mobile devices.But Jeff Kohler, a wireless executive at Bathgate Capital Partners in Denver, said, "From an AT&T standpoint, on a marketing level, those people [at AT&T] have to be disappointed. There is the potential to lose the exclusivity and branding that goes with the iPhone."Dunsby said the hack will have no "business impact. But the message this sends is that subscribers want innovation and flexibility in their platform."Indeed, when Apple announced it had an exclusive agreement with AT&T to carry the iPhone, many mobile phone fans were excited because the phone would run on a GSM network, meaning perhaps a SIM card from another carrier would work.But Apple, in an unprecedented move, locked the SIM card into the phone so users would not be able to insert a card from T-Mobile or a European carrier to make the iPhone work. Buyers of GSM phones made by Nokia and Motorola, for example, can easily open the back of the phone and slip in a SIM card for another wireless carrier."The message [the hack] sends to the communications industry is that innovation is important, but being in a closed environment isn't a good thing," Dunsby said.He added, though, that most people won't see the benefit of doing a hack as complicated as the one Hotz achieved.According to interviews, Hotz said he used soldering tools and software to hack the iPhone. He said the two iPhones he hacked, one of which he's put up for bid on eBay, have all their features intact except the visual voice-mail function.Hotz's sudden popularity was noticed by major television networks Friday. He was picked up by a limousine for a trip to New York City for an interview with NBC, ABC and other broadcasters, his father said.On Saturday, he heads to college to start his freshman year."It's great he got it done in time," the elder Hotz said. "He can enjoy this moment of glory."

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