Unlocking the iPhone: a fool’s errand

The many and various efforts made to unlock the iPhone, documented around the Web – here at the BBC, over there at Ed Felten’s blog, seem to miss a crucial point. Whether or not George Hotz,  iphonesimfree  and UniquePhones manage to achieve their goal, or even  to commercialise the service in the face of  nastygrams from AT&T, there is no real point to the exercise other than a demonstration – yet again – that software locks are always breakable.

For all it takes is for Apple to tie the next batch of OS updates or security patches to a key code that can only be accessed by connecting to a server sitting inside the AT&T network, visible only across the AT&T cellular network, and they will force anyone using an unlocked phone to choose once and for all whether they are going to follow the phone’s evolution – and have software that is patched against the many bugs that code is heir to – or go their own way, like the homebrew PSPers.

And unlike the PSP downgraders, who generally manage update their firmware and then retrieve the needed functionality, anyone who wants to update their iPhone software and then unlock it again will have to pay AT&T for the privilege, something that could rapidly diminish the attractiveness of this option.

Even those who keep their AT&T contract and just want to use an alternative SIM when travelling will find that, as with iTunes and Hymn, Apple puts a lot of effort into re-establishing the locks whenever it updates the system software, so what should be a one-off procedure becomes a regular operation.

Apple betrayed its user base by doing an exclusive deal with AT&T, and the efforts of a few dedicated hackers can’t fix it.