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If Apple doesn't approve of what you've done to your iPhone, watch out!

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This is Leo Notenboom for askleo.info.

"Bricking" is a term for an update or modification that turns a previously useful portable device into an inoperable one - rendering it nothing more than an expensive "brick" of electronics and plastic.

iPhone users who had unlocked their phones to run on networks other than AT&T or otherwise customized their iPhones beyond what Apple considered appropriate were in for a rude surprise this week as the latest firmware update turned their $600 toys into $600 bricks. As I understand it, the bricking might be reversible and might even be avoidable if you "un-hack" your iPhone before applying the update, but in either case you're left with either a brick or a "standard", unaltered iPhone.

All this really comes down to a topic that's been quite popular lately, though more in relation to Microsoft than Apple.

Just who's computer is it, anyway?

And is this a computer?

Apple appears to want to completely control what is allowed to run on the iPhone. And in all honesty, they certainly have that right. Let's face it, if we didn't know it was a programmable device people would likely accept it as is without question. It's totally within Apple's rights to lock it down as tight as they want and let the market decide whether that was an appropriate choice.

The problem is that people do notice that an iPhone, like most portable phones these days, is more general purpose computer than it is actual phone. In fact they do much more than notice; they expect the device to be programmable like a more general purpose computer.

They expect the device to be open.

Now, honestly I have a hard time understanding Apple's position on this one. It seems to me that to step on your most advanced, most supportive users and tell them that they can't make your device more useful to more people is just ... well, it's just inexplicable. I don't get it. Selling the iPhone as an open platform (or at least a more open platform) seems like it would only increase acceptance.

The iPhone is a very nice device with some incredibly cool innovations and features.

But Apple's taking the "i" out of the iPhone. They made it clear that it's not my phone at all. It's theirs.

And that's too bad. It's more than an opportunity lost, it's a disappointment to those of us who really understand its potential and want to see the product succeed.

But as it stands, no, I'm still not getting an iPhone.

iWon't

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit askleo.info and enter 11869 in the go to article number box to access the show notes, the transcript and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse over 1,200 technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for askleo.info.

Article C3164 - September 30, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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10 Comments
Mike
September 30, 2007 9:02 PM

Leo,

While I might agree that Apple has the right to initially lock down a product, that right no longer exists once the unit is sold. I think that this can be seen clearly when one applies both the doctrine of "First Sale" to this issue where the buyer owns the copyright of "usage" of the software for the device purchased. Once this sale has been made Apple no longer has the right to go back into the unit and disable that software. Another case which would seem to imply this view as well is SCC vs Lexmark where Lexmark tried to use copyright and DMCA to prevent 3rd parties from refilling ink cartridges. Both the 6th Circuit Court and the Copyright office said that copyrights could not be used to prevent the usage of devices after the first sale of that device which depended upon those copyrights were sold.

For those that are going to claim that Apple was in their rights due to contract obligations, they should also remember that courts take a very dim view of anyone taking unilateral actions which result in the destruction of another's property without civil action taking place first (regardless of contract).

I will not be surprised if within the next few weeks an Attorney General from a state like New York, California or even Vermont (where iPhones are not sold) does not issue some kind of legal action against Apple for breaking Consumer Laws over the deliberate bricking of their consumer's iPhones (not to mention other class action suits).

Being a long time Mac enthusiast I am sorry to see Apple commit such a huge mistake, especially since it will distract their attention from working on other great products.

Ray
September 30, 2007 10:32 PM

Mike,

I have to disagree. While the owner of a mobile phone has the right to modify the device, such as to unlock it, add, or remove "embedded" applications, etc., there's no requirement that the original manufacturer support such modifications. Leo alluded to the recent Microsoft "stealth" update, which brings us to the real question: can iPhone owners voluntarily opt out of the 1.1.1 update? I don't know.

When the iPhone was announced I thought, finally, someone is going to take on the U.S. wireless cartel. Unfortunately, it's been more assimilation than revolution.

On a related topic, AT&T announced a new TOS that allows them to terminate your service if you make public comments that they determine negatively impacts them. This worries me more than what Apple is doing.

Gerald
October 1, 2007 7:13 AM

While I don't necessarily agree with Apple forcing people to use AT&T as the sole and exclusive service provider, how is it any different from buying a car with an XM satellite radio and trying to alter the electronics to use Sirius? Or subscribing to Time Warner Cable's Roadrunner and altering equipment to use Earthlink? It's a subscription service plan for a specific product/service provider. If people don't like AT&T they shouldn't have bought the iPhone.

Ken Crook
October 5, 2007 7:22 PM

For the car analogy, if you buy a car you can replace the engine, low-rider it, replace the radio, etc. The car manufacturer car declare the car's warranty voided for the affected areas. But the manufacturer can not take away the car's key.

If Apple wanted to restrict the usage of the iphone, Apple should have leased the iphone. The user would only be renting the iphone and Apple would still own the iphone and be within Apple's legal right to restrict what the user can do with the iphone.

Albert
October 5, 2007 7:24 PM

Although apple might not like it people still payed for their telephone and as long as they don't distribute any hacks or tips witch would enable other people to alter their phones, i don't see what they lose from it. If they wanted to make more money from the iPhone after the day they (the iPhones) are sold, apple should not have sold them
at all, bat only let people lease an iPhone.

Jeff
October 6, 2007 7:13 AM

Isn't this a software license issue? You may own the hardware, but Apple is upgrading the software...Maybe someone more familiar with the product can tell us about any EULA included with the iPhone.

Tony
October 6, 2007 11:24 AM

I don't own an iphone or even an ipod. One thing I don't understand, didn't you have to sign a two year agreement with AT&T when you got your iphone? If you modify it to switch carriers don't you still have to pay AT&T.

Steve
October 7, 2007 8:41 AM

Tony, to answer your question: No. When the iPhone is purchased no agreement of any kind is implemented. The agreement comes in when you activate it through iTunes - you agree to 2 years with ATT. As I understand it (though I'm not sure) the unlocking hacks are performed before the iPhone is activated through iTunes. I may be wrong on this last point, but nothing is agreed to at the time of purchase.

I have an iPhone and before I upgraded to 1.1.1, I was presented with a pretty clear statement that certain hacks might make the iPhone inoperable and had the choice not to upgrade at that point. This is the exact warning: (words in upper case are theirs, not added by me)

"WARNING: Apple has discovered that some of the unauthorized unlocking programs available on the Internet may cause irreparable damage to the iPhone's software. IF YOU HAVE MODIFIED YOUR iPHONE'S SOFTWARE, APPLYING THIS SOFTWARE UPDATE MAY RESULT IN YOUR iPHONE BECOMING PERMANENTLY INOPERABLE. Making unauthorized modifications to the software on your iPhone violates the iPhone software license agreement, and the inability to use your iPhone due to unauthorized software modifications is not covered under your iPhone's warranty."

I strongly disagree with Apple's policy of "bricking" people's iPhone, but if anyone claims they were surprised, they just weren't paying attention.

Thor Johnson
October 8, 2007 5:52 AM

Gerald:

One issue with taking the iPhone to another network is that the "folder based" voicemail won't work -- the voicemail is not stored on the phone, but at the telco. AT&T put some additional signals into the voicemail alerts that lets the iPhone work the way it does.

So... unlocking it would let you use it with another provider, but you wouldn't have every feature working.

I'm not sure on the Bricking... On the one hand, I can see new software using resources that were not used by the old official software but were used on the hacked version (think about the driver hell that you experienced on your PC moving from Win98 -> Win2000)...

On the other hand, a lot of issues would be mitigated if Apple were to open the platform a little; if they gave people python/cocoa bindings and provided an *approved* way to put new software on the phone and remove it, these "unknown & unknowable" hacks would have less value, and I would have much less problem with an update bricking the phone.

Maybe we could get the AT&T specs and put that information into the OpenMoko phone:
http://www.openmoko.com/index.html

Supposedly, an early-adopter ready (aka, working but with warts) version should be released this month. You can get the developer edition now, but it's a platform without all the glue yet (aka, you need to write software to make calls).

Correction: Qtopia interface seems ready now, but it only has a 3 hour battery life (expected to improve markedly once the power saving code gets done). Roll your own phone, here we go!

londo
May 11, 2009 11:35 PM

i have unfortunately gotten myself an iphone in the belief that all phones are accessible to the user. all other phones in the universe are easy to hook up via cable, easy to transfer files to and easy and fun to personalise. not so with the iphone. this is THE most dissapointing device i have ever bought. i cannot believe that a manufacturer would place so many restrictions on a device that i am using. i would never but a car with a limiter on or locked doors that i cannot use. its like driving ure car with the bonnet locked so you cant change the sparkplugs. i regret getting the iphone. this is an opportunity that apple simply screwed up. amazing how they could have gotten this sooooo wrong. what were they thinking and who on earth did they talk to when they made it.

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