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Monday, October 8, 2007

iBricked the New Mobile Phone

It wasn't like Apple didn't warn them. The small but proud number of owners who had "unlocked" their iPhones to work with networks other than AT&T knew that the warranty forbade such hacking. If that weren't enough, Apple sent out a message a couple of weeks ago that couldn't have been more explicit. "Many of the unauthorized iPhone unlocking programs available on the Internet ... will likely result in the modified iPhone becoming permanently inoperable when a future Apple-supplied iPhone software update is installed." Nonetheless, when the ax really fell-Apple released new iPhone software on Sept. 27-those whose updated phones were suddenly "bricked" (rendered no more useful than a ceramic block) were not the only ones who suffered. Apple, that perpetual engine of joyful and radical high-tech disruption, suddenly found itself on the wrong end of a revolution

True, the numbers of people who altered their phones are minuscule compared with the 1 million users who've bought iPhones so far. But just as a 17-year-old made international headlines a few weeks earlier when he was among the first to unlock the iPhone, the media jumped on tales of woe from iPhone lovers who were off the hook permanently. (The solution offered by one Apple PR person-buy another iPhone-seemed gratuitously cruel.) Less serious, but equally disturbing, was the fate of those who had downloaded some of the hundreds of unauthorized programs available online to increase the usefulness of the iPhone. In most cases, after they installed the iPhone update (which fixed bugs, improved the typing process and added the online iTunes Music Store application), it zapped the apps they'd added, leaving no trace. (This was the case with my own iPhone, which no longer registers the ringtones I created free of charge with an app I grabbed off the Net.)

The stories presented an easily graspable narrative: here were energetic, creative lovers of Apple who wanted to make the gadget they adored more useful, fun and flexible. That's the spirit of the computer age, the zest that gave Apple its original mojo. And for this, these tinkerers got ... a $400 brick upside the head

Apple, of course, sees things differently. "We are proceeding to improve and extend the amazing software on the iPhone," it said in a statement. "Unfortunately, some of the unauthorized hacking and unlocking programs cause damage to the iPhone's software that is not repairable." In Apple's view, the iPhone is geared to work exclusively with the AT&T network, and software installed on it has to be carefully tested so it won't create security vulnerabilities. The company doesn't see unlocking as a moral issue, but simply believes that it must protect the integrity of its product. It says that the iPhone's capabilities are best enhanced not by downloading applications but by using the phone's browser to access Web sites geared to the dynamics of the iPhone, like the excellent Facebook site customized for the device. "You don't want your phone to be an open platform-you need it to work when you need it to work," Apple CEO Steve Jobs told me in January.

But users do want the iPhone to be open-if not totally, certainly more than it is now. There is a suspicion that more than security is involved here. When choosing which applications to allow on devices that run on their networks, carriers have traditionally selected those that protect their revenue streams. (Instead of authorizing programs to turn your music into ringtones for free, carriers are more likely to give you a program that allows you to buy ringtones on the network.) If you don't like your carrier, it's hard to leave, as you are forced to sign a long-term contract with a stiff penalty for bailing.

Jobs himself once referred to the carriers as "orifices," and said he'd hold off making a phone until he got concessions that let him create a product his way. Although his deal with AT&T allowed him to satisfy those needs, in some respects it's the same old, same old-a closed system and a carrier contract written in weasel blood. The excellence of the few apps included on the phone, like Google Maps, only whets the appetite for more. Why no instant-messaging program? Why can't the iPhone open up a Word document? "Would it be smart for Apple to work with third-party apps?" asks Ed Felton, director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton. "The answer is yes. A lot of iPhone users think of it like a computer."

Mobile users in general are getting tired of this Soviet-style system. (In Europe and Asia, consumers are treated much better.) The FCC has indicated that it may mandate carriers who bid in 2008 for the next big chunk of the wireless spectrum to open their systems to developers. One potential bidder is Google, which has an interest in making its various apps available to all.

Apple may well be the biggest beneficiary of a new unlocked and unwalled era: an unfettered iPhone would become more valuable and reach more users. Instead of explaining why some of its phones are bricked, it should be tossing bricks-to break down the walls that box in consumers.

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