Adventures in journalism, part ()
Last week the Telegraph got in touch, saying please could I write something about iPhone hacks to tie in with the imminent iPhone launch in the UK. Sure, I said, be happy to. Can you do 1200 words, they said. No problem.
The article appeared today: Apple v the iHackers, and it has been cut back to 700 words. To make it flow, most of what I filed has been re-written or moved around.
I’m not moaning. This kind of thing comes with the job. Newspapers, particularly, are governed by the twin pressures of advertising space (if an ad – especially a big one – comes in at the last minute, copy will have to be cut to make room for it) and printing press deadlines. (It’s an interesting contrast with online publications which are unencumbered by either constraint.) If you write something for a print publication, you have to be prepared for it to be chopped up by the subs.
In the unlikely event that you’re interested, here’s my original 1200 word version:
Hacking the iPhone
Apple’s iPhone, unveiled to UK customers yesterday, has all the technical characteristics of a computer. But Apple doesn’t want you to think of it like that.
As far as its makers are concerned, the iPhone is a device – a thing you buy and use as it comes, just as you’d use a television, or a dishwasher. Most certainly not a thing to be messed with.
Try telling that to the iPhone hackers.
They don’t want to be spending all that money on something they can’t play with. They want to dive inside it, get their hands dirty with a bit of coding, and customise it. Apple and its partners in the mobile telephony business are having a hard time stopping them.
Ever since its launch in the US back in June, the iPhone has been subjected to all sorts of hacks and tricks by a growing community of keen computer nerds, determined to bend its internals to their will.
Overjoyed with the iPhone’s innovative multi-touch interface, the geeks have been trying to add more applications. They know the computer inside can handle them, but Apple’s default set of apps isn’t enough for some people. They want to add all manner of extras, and don’t see why the threat of voiding their purchase warranty should get in the way.
A virgin iPhone won’t let users change things much. If you want to start adding software or extra ringtones, your first task is to “jailbreak” your iPhone.
In the early days that required detailed technical knowledge and a lot of spare time. More recently, downloading a copy of third-party application iFuntastic was all you needed to jailbreak your iPhone and customise almost anything you could think of. Then it became simpler still: the Jailbreak Me web site sprung up, offering instant jailbreaking to iPhone users with just one click.
Both of these methods install a piece of software, Installer.app, on the iPhone. Those who want to be more personally involved in the jailbreak process can download Installer.app and install it manually, if they prefer.
Once jailbroken, your iPhone is open to further tweaking and meddling. Installer.app is an ingenious idea; it automatically checks in with a central database of available third-party programs, and can download, install (and uninstall) them with a couple of finger taps. It even checks to see if any of your installed software needs to be updated.
Jailbreaking is not the same as unlocking the device, but does make unlocking possible with the use of third party applications, which can be installed easily on a jailbroken iPhone.
All iPhones sold in the US so far have been locked to the AT&T network; in the UK, it is O2 that has the deal with Apple. But mobile phone users in Europe are a savvy bunch on the whole, and unused to the idea of a phone that can’t be unlocked and used on a different network.
Jailbroken iPhone in hand, the simplest way to unlock it is by paying £35 or so for a third-party application called SimFree, which does what you’d expect – unlocks the iPhone for use with any standard sim card on any standard network.
All of this hackery is considered fair game by the hackers who indulge in it, but it is considered anything but that by Apple and its telephone service providers.
Since the jailbreaking and unlocking began, a sizable minority of iPhone owners has spent been engaged in a nail-biting cat-and-mouse game with Apple. As soon as a way was found to crack open the iPhone’s digital guts, shortly afterwards Apple released a software update that slammed the door shut. Days or weeks passed, then the cycle repeated.
The first battle in the war was won decisively by Apple, when a software update turned a lot of unlocked iPhones into expensive “bricks” that could no longer make calls. Furious iPhone owners turned on Apple, but didn’t have grounds to argue; by hacking their iPhone in the first place, they’d broken the warranty.
Subsequently, more hacks appeared online – some offering to return “bricked” iPhones to their factory-fresh condition, and a fresh batch designed to break through the security around the brick-creating update itself.
The situation now is complicated, especially for British owners of brand-new iPhones bought since yesterday. Much depends on which version of iPhone firmware you have, and how up-to-date your copy of iTunes is on your Mac or PC. The 1.1.1 version of the iPhone’s firmware was the cause of all the “bricking” controversy, although hacks have now been written that can skirt around it. Reportedly, Apple’s UK iPhones are being sold with a newer version, 1.1.2 – and if that’s what your new iPhone is running, you’ll find hacking it much more tricky.
This version closes a lot of the holes used for previous jailbreaks and unlocks. At the time of writing, neither iFuntastic, Jailbreak Me nor Installer.app will work on an iPhone running firmware version 1.1.2.
That’s not going to put off the hackers, though, who will be determined to find another way inside iPhone as soon as possible.
If they could bring themselves to wait they might have an easier time of it. In mid-October, perhaps spurred on by the catting-and-mousing of iPhone hackery that was dominating pretty much every Apple-related news feed at the time, boss Steve Jobs made a brief announcement: in February 2008, Apple will release a full-fledged Software Development Kit (SDK) for the iPhone and iPod Touch.
Professional application developers were overjoyed to hear this – it’s what they’d been desperate for ever since the iPhone was first announced.
The SDK announcement was itself delayed, as Jobs explained in his typically candid manner: Apple wants to open the iPhone to genuine software developers, but keep it locked tight against malicious software, viruses and dodgy hacks that could break the built-in code. Striking this balance between access and security was an extremely difficult task, and the main reason why no SDK was available in the first place.
When the iPhone was first announced, some hardcore geeks derided it for lack of basic functions. But Apple is committed to the iPhone for the long term, and likes to spend time getting its products perfect. There’s every chance that future software updates and hardware revisions will see the iPhone gradually morphing into the tiny tablet computer that those hardcore geeks wished it was in the first place.
While the geeks battle to make that dream a reality now, Apple is working behind the scenes to make it happen when it decides the time is right.
BOX: Top 10 iPhone hacks
If you really can’t wait until February, and you don’t mind voiding your warranty, and you can find a way of making them work on iPhone firmware 1.1.2, here’s our pick of the finest and most fun ways of getting more from your iPhone.
- Installer.app – without it, doing any sort of modification would be beyond most people
- Jailbreak Me – point your iPhone’s browser at it, and in a few minutes you’re ready to go
- Mobile Twitterific – puts your Twitter (http://twitter.com) tweets on your iPhone
- Scrollbox – find and read free ebooks
- NES.app – play retro Nintendo video games
- Apollo IM – chat with AIM, MSN, .Mac and ICQ buddies
- Dock – pack more apps into the tiny iPhone home screen
- Mobilestack – and if Dock isn’t enough, why not stack apps on top of each other?
- SendSong – send songs, by email!
- VoiceNotes – record vocal notes to yourself