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Thoughts on iPhone Hacking

There are really two different kinds of hacking going on here

Lately there's been a lot of buzz about the iPhone and people hacking it so that it can be used on different carriers and so that they can install third party apps (or possibly create their own) onto the phone itself. Apple has released a statement that indicates that when iPhones receive an update (I think next week), if the iPhone has been hacked and decoupled from AT&T, that the phone is going to turn into a pretty expensive brick.

There are really two different kinds of hacking going on here. The first kind is where people use applications of varying degrees of difficulty (it's actually getting pretty easy now...) to "jailbreak" the iPhone, which allows foreign software to be installed on it. This is where people will install RSH so they can then copy binaries over to the iPhone which can be run from the main home screen. The goal of this form of hacking is to be able to do things like run the NES emulator and other third-party applications on the iPhone without having to do the whole "Web 2.0"/AJAX thing.

The second kind of hacking is where, after the "jailbreak", additional steps are taken to decouple the phone from it's default carrier, AT&T. The goal of this type of hacking is to be able to use the phone on other networks as well as use those other networks internationally.

So, on to my opinion. The bottom line is that you purchased the device. You own it. The hardware that is the iPhone is yours to do with as you please. However, the services the device provides are not yours. Seriously - read the bloody license agreement. This means that if you tamper with your iPhone, it is within Apple/AT&T's right to:

  • Prevent you from making phone calls on the AT&T network
  • Prevent you from making EDGE modem calls
  • Allow you to use the EDGE data network, but not using the unlimited data plan (this will cost you big bucks)
  • Prevent your phone from working at all!
  • Prevent your phone from receiving updates

Here's the question that you should be asking yourself before you go bust open your iPhone: Why do I want to hack my iPhone??

If the answer is "to say that I hacked my iPhone", you need to reconsider your actions. While it might be novel to be able to run a NES emulator on the iPhone, even if the tools get better, the average end user is not going to have the skill to properly hack their iPhone. So, if you're thinking about building some third party software for the iPhone that you can only use on hacked phones... maybe you should think about the size of your intended audience? Also, given Apple's stance, your software is only going to work on phones that never synch (never get patches), or phones that haven't yet received the latest update. So that pretty much shoots the idea of building native iPhone apps for a large taget audience - it's just not practical and only barely possible.

What about using hacks to switch networks? Well, this is already one action that Apple has said they will block and after the next patch, unlocked phones running on non-AT&T networks (or with no network) are going to be turned into useless bricks. So you have to weigh the options: you can decide that you're going to be happy with the phone as it is now and never patch/update it and use some other network, or you can continue to get ongoing support/patches if you leave the phone as-is. Here's something else to consider: if you unlock the phone and use someone else's network, there's no way you're going to qualify for one of those unlimited data rate plans - so all of those horror stories about people abroad getting multi-thousand-dollar iPhone bills - that's going to be you.

I have to admit, it's extremely tempting. The iPhone is a really sexy device, and the very idea of "conquering" such a sexy device has a lot of geeky/hacker appeal to it. I've personally thought to myself, "Well, what if I bought myself a second iPhone and hacked it and kept my main iPhone unharmed?" ... Here's the rundown:

  • A hacked iPhone is going to cost you a LOT more money to use on the Internet
  • A hacked iPhone (carrier change) is going to cost you a LOT more money to use on another carrier, if you can even get it to work (I have yet to see a carrier-switched iPhone in the wild)
  • A hacked iPhone is not going to survive a single update from an iTunes sync without either "unhacking" (restoring the base image) or turning the phone (cell carrier decoupling) into a useless but attractive lump of technology.
  • At this point, developing applications using the iPhone's native Cocoa is not a viable development platform. You have no audience. Your customers would need to be well above the power-user level in order to simply install your software. Your customers would violate their warranty and suffer all three of the previously listed consequences to hacking the phone just to run your software. It just ain't gonna happen.

Sure, I think it sucks that we can't use iPhones domestically on other networks legally for another couple years (I think the exclusivity deal was 2 years? or was it 5?). I think it sucks that the international roaming plan for the iPhone is pretty weak, if it even exists at all. I also think a lot of really ignorant people needed to learn more about their iPhones before going abroad and setting their mail to check automatically every 5 minutes.... they deserve everything they got.

I am a tinkerer by nature, and yes I have seen the inside of many an Xbox. That said, I agree that it is within Microsoft's right to boot your sorry hacking butt off of Xbox Live for tampering with the hardware. When you sign up for Xbox live, that's in your terms of service agreement. When you activate your phone for AT&T, you agree to similar terms.

Do whatever you want to your phone, but don't come crying to Apple or AT&T when your phone stops working, stops making phone calls, or you have to take out a second mortgage to pay for the data roaming you incurred while browsing the web on a non-AT&T hacked iPhone.

If you want to write applications for the iPhone, right now you've got to do it through the mobile Safari. Definitely not the ideal experience, but that's all there is right now, and at least if you're developing your apps with HTML and JavaScript, you can reach all your potential customers without asking them to break their service agreements, break their phones, or learn to use all the latest hacking tools.

So, to summarize: When you activated your phone, you agreed to vendor lock-in, you agreed to not open the case, you agreed to not decouple the phone from AT&T. If you didn't want the phone badly enough to agree to those terms, you shouldn't have bought the phone. Seriously, rather than showing your displeasure with Apple's vendor lock-in and strict terms by hacking the phone, buy a different phone.

That said, I'm still holding out for a legitimate, legal SDK for the phone. At which point, I will write code for my unhacked phone. Until then, I will continue to write code for my iPhone using HTML and JavaScript. Once you get past the initial stage of being pissed that you can't use Cocoa, the applications you can create for the iPhone using just the Webkit styles, HTMl, and JavaScript are actually pretty damn impressive.

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More Stories By Kevin Hoffman

Kevin Hoffman, editor-in-chief of SYS-CON's iPhone Developer's Journal, has been programming since he was 10 and has written everything from DOS shareware to n-tier, enterprise web applications in VB, C++, Delphi, and C. Hoffman is coauthor of Professional .NET Framework (Wrox Press) and co-author with Robert Foster of Microsoft SharePoint 2007 Development Unleashed. He authors The .NET Addict's Blog at .NET Developer's Journal.

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