Unlocking the iPhone

There is a lot of huffing and puffing going on about people ‘hacking’ the iPhone. At the heart of the matter are the twin definitions of the verb ‘hack’ that are not always well recognized. Many people take ‘hacking’ to mean malicious invasion of electronic systems, for instance in order to steal credit card numbers. An older definition of the word is simply to tinker with technology. In this sense, a ‘hack’ might be a clever modification of a bicycle or a mobile phone.

Apple has been exploiting all the hype about the iPhone to make highly preferential deals with individual carriers. This has happened in the US and UK already, doubtless with more to follow. These arrangements seem to benefit Apple and the carriers, but I doubt very much that they benefit the consumer. It is like Toyota building cars that can only be filled at Shell service stations, then trying to prosecute people who try to remove the restrictions, allowing them to be filled elsewhere. Just as the people own the cars and should thus be free to modify them in ways that do not endanger others, people who own iPhones should be able to tinker with them. Likewise, just as the Toyoto-Shell case is clear-cut collusion of the kind governmental competition authorities police, so too does the Apple-cell carrier situation.

See also: Forbidden features and If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

6 thoughts on “Unlocking the iPhone”

  1. Steve Jobs Girds for the Long iPhone War
    By Saul Hansell

    Tags: Apple, hackers, iphone

    There is something futile about the way Apple appears to be fighting some of its most ardent fans, those who want to use the full capabilities of the iPhone.

    Thursday afternoon, Apple released the scheduled update to the iPhone software. And the gadget blogs confirm that it does, as Apple threatened, wreak havoc on modified iPhones. Some phones have indeed been “bricked.” In others, unofficial applications have been disabled. And there are worries that hacking the updated phone will be harder.

    The result: Serious hackers will keep find new ways to break in. Less technically inclined may well find themselves chastened into technological submission, assuming they can get their pricey toys to work at all. Will Apple really refuse to help people with iBricks?

  2. Are they selling the iPhone below cost, hoping to recoup the difference from their deals with carriers? If so, all this anti-unlocking activity seems a bit more justified.

  3. Apple iPhone warning proves true

    An Apple software update is disabling iPhones that have been unlocked by owners who wanted to choose which mobile network to use.

    Earlier this week Apple said a planned update would leave the device “permanently inoperable”.

  4. Are they selling the iPhone below cost, hoping to recoup the difference from their deals with carriers? If so, all this anti-unlocking activity seems a bit more justified.

    I do not think this argument is valid.

    If Toyota sold cars at below cost, hoping to make up the difference on the basis of kickbacks from Shell, people would not be willing to accept it. ‘Our business model depends on it’ is not a valid corporate defence for anti-competitive behaviour.

  5. Unlocking an iPhone is legal

    Copyright scholar Tim Wu has a great little piece on Slate about the legality of iPhone unlocking. Bottom line: it’s legal and it’s fun!
    Did I do anything wrong? When you buy an iPhone, Apple might argue that you’ve made an implicit promise to become an AT&T customer. But I did no such thing. I told the employees at the Apple Store that I wanted to unlock it, and at no stage of the purchasing process did I explicitly agree to be an AT&T customer. There was no sneakiness; I just did something they didn’t like.
    Meanwhile, lest we forget, I did just throw down more than $400 for this little toy. I’m no property-rights freak, but that iPhone is now my personal property, and that ought to stand for something. General Motors advises its customers to use “genuine parts,” but it can’t force you to buy gas from Exxon. Honda probably hates it when you put some crazy spoiler on your Civic, but no one says it’s illegal or wrong.

    The worst thing that you can say about me is that I’ve messed with Apple’s right to run its business exactly the way it wants. But to my mind, that’s not a right you get in the free market or in our legal system. Instead, Apple is facing trade-offs rightly beyond its control. When people unlock phones, Apple loses revenue it was hoping for, but also gains customers who would have never bought an iPhone in the first place. That’s life.

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