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History of Software on the iPhone – A Prelude

My iPhone is now an iBrick. Here’s how it happened, what I learned, how it felt, and what you might be able to learn from the whole thing. I’ll write up the details of that story in a separate post. This one is for background.

My Line Waiting Assistants

I am a HUGE iPhone fan. I camped out on release day to be number one in line. I’ve used the heck out of my iPhone every single day since I got it. I’ve taught other people how great they are, answered countless questions about it, and generally been a huge fan.

Getting Ready to Activate

I have had many, many mobile devices, and understand that since the operating system for most devices resides in flash ROM, and isn’t meant to be readily modified, you can’t expect the device manufacturer to help you fix problems you run into with a modified device. This hasn’t prevented lively developer communities from springing up around popular devices – like XDA-Developers, etc. – to help power users get even more functionality and fun from their devices.

Soon after the iPhone was launched on June 29, 2007, such a developer community popped up around it. Even though Apple made it very clear that they didn’t intend to support iPhone developers at all. “Make web applications. That’s good enough.” was the edict from Cupertino. Most people I know, from real developers to regular old users were miffed that Apple wasn’t releasing a Software Development Kit (SDK) to make applications for the iPhone. So the development community took matters into its own hands.

It ranged from people like Joe Hewitt (of Firebug and now Facebook fame – he’s the guy that wrote Facebook’s iPhone UI, which has been featured in Steve Jobs keynotes) engineering and releasing tools like iUI to make better web applications to the dedicated hackers who figured out how to get your own applications to install and run on the iPhone. Following best practices from the Linux world, they gave people how were willing to “jailbreak” their iPhone the ability to run Nullriver’s AppTapp Installer.app – a package manager that opened the door to browse and install dozens of iPhone applications.

Apps installed on my iPhone, 9/11/07

There was an uneasy stalemate between Apple and the iPhone developers. Apple openly admitted that they weren’t going to support these 3rd party developers, but they weren’t going to try to stop them, either. On September 11, 2007, Gearlog published this quote from an interview with Greg Joswiak, VP of Hardware Product Marketing at Apple:

I asked him about independent, native software development for the iPhone. He said Apple doesn’t oppose native application development, which was new to me. Rather, Apple takes a neutral stance – they’re not going to stop anyone from writing apps, and they’re not going to maliciously design software updates to break the native apps, but they’re not going to care if their software updates accidentally break the native apps either.

In other words, iPhone “hacking” would follow the same path as other mobile devices, like Windows Mobile, iPods, etc. No one expected Apple to help customers make 3rd party applications work. Everyone knew that the most you could expect from Apple was a complete wipe and restore back to factory new settings. In fact, when iPhone updates 1.0.1 and 1.0.2 were released, this is exactly what happened. If you had “jailbroken” your iPhone and installed 3rd party apps, the device was wiped and restored to Apple’s known good “clean” state. No more than two weeks later, Apple radically reversed its position on this issue.

The Smugness

Then came the seemingly similar activity of “unlocking” iPhones to work on cellular carriers other than AT&T. The iPhone is a unique device in that it’s extraordinarily locked down, meant only to work if you have a valid account with AT&T. Without active AT&T service, you couldn’t use any of the other features of the iPhone. No wifi web browsing, no iPod media playback, nothing. So the people outside of AT&T service area (the whole world outside the United States), and people who couldn’t or didn’t want to switch to AT&T could never have an iPhone, under Apple and AT&Ts rules. Many people felt this was unfair and dictatorial, and It’s interesting to note that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires U.S. cell phone carriers to SIM unlock customers’ phones upon request, for overseas travel, or any other reason.

Mac Book Pro and iPhone

So the development community set to work on a “SIM unlock” for the iPhone, which modified the radio/baseband part of the iPhone firmware to allow it to use ANY SIM card from ANY carrier. The unlocking apps were released. The world rejoiced. And no one expected Apple to support iPhones that weren’t on the AT&T network. Just like installing 3rd party applications, the most you could expect Apple to do would be to wipe and restore your iPhone to its original state.

An application called anySIM was the first free version of these unlocking apps. It was made available through the popular and simple Installer.app package system (it was pulled a few hours later). During the time it was available, I downloaded it. I didn’t need or want to unlock my iPhone – I’m happy with AT&T’s service (we have two lines of service in our family), and I didn’t even have a non-AT&T SIM card that I could use to test and see if the unlock worked. But I’m a geek and an enthusiast and a blogger, so I ran the unlock software, if only to document the process, just like all the other 3rd party software installations I had done.

And that’s where all the trouble started…

(Click here to read the next part of the saga: I admit it – I ran anySIM to unlock my iPhone (a photo story))

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8 thoughts on “History of Software on the iPhone – A Prelude

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  7. I think you are missing a couple things. Windows Mobile devices really dont need to be hacked to install programs on them, and Microsoft has guidelines and developer tools for you to create your applications, way different than Apple… Windows Mobile is “open” if you will already. Microsoft encourages developers to make 3rd party applications for their mobile OS.

  8. That’s a very good point, Steve. I pretty much take that for granted – the fact that you can do whatever you want with a Windows Mobile device out of the box. That’s a very different experience from the iPhone.

    When I wrote that, I was thinking about doing things to the flash ROM of the device. Installing a custom ROM image that includes the apps you want, and excludes the shovelware that your carrier loaded on the device. Or upgrading to Windows Mobile 6 before your carrier decides when and if they’re going to get around to offering the upgrade to you, the people from whom they’ve already sucked money from, and aren’t going to get any more for the device.

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