Unlock, unblock unravel

Days after its launch in the U.S., it seems Apple’s iPhone is still securely tethered to the AT&T network.

So far at least, claims about the “significant progress” of efforts to unlock the device haven’t amounted to much.

Media reports proclaimed yesterday that hackers are close to being able to browse system files on the iPhone – a vital step towards unlocking the gizmo.

The iPhone’s use of a removable SIM (subscriber identity module) was cited as a favourable factor for hackers, as it means the device is locked using firmware, which can probably be cracked.

On Sunday some hacker groups announced they were “within hours” of reaching their goal.

Now, it seems, these hackers are less sanguine and the latest timelines being trotted out – for successfully unlocking the iPhone – are three to seven days.

By Tuesday night, one group claimed it had cracked the iPhone’s activation process, a small step towards unlocking the iPhone, but a significant technical challenge.

Here’s how the activation process works: When a user seeks to activate the iPhone via iTunes, a software token is sent from the phone via iTunes to Apple, which signs the token and returns it to the phone. That process completed, iTunes allows the phone to be activated.

Hackers say they have developed tools for both the Windows and Mac OS that allow the iPhone to be activated without going through iTunes. But users would need a token from an already activated iPhone, which can be used to activate multiple phones.

Hackers are not providing a token with their tools.

“If you don’t have a known token (which does contain identifying information) you won’t be able to use the tool,” said a hacker who wanted to remain anonymous.

But cracking the activation process and successfully unlocking the phone are two very different projects — and from the looks of it, it will be a while before the latter is accomplished.

Meanwhile, many prospective users – much like J. Alfred Prufrock – are asking themselves the overwhelming question: “And would it have been worth it, after all?”

Answers to that query are wide and varied.

The legality issue aside, the moot issue is: what are the tangible advantages, if any, of an unlocked iPhone?

For some iPhone enthusiasts, the answer to that question is simple: None!

“Given that pretty much all mobile providers suck, each in their own special way, and even if it’s unlocked there still won’t be 3G support, unlocking the phone seems mildly useless to me (save for the ability to use it abroad),” writes avid iPhone blogger Scott Gilbertson.

Others, however, take the view that it’s principle rather than practical benefits that should drive unlocking efforts.

They note that generally the practice of locking phones is used to help operators recover the cost of subsidizing handsets.

However, in this case, they point out, AT&T is not subsidizing the iPhone; so locking the phone holds out no benefits to users – but only serves to preserve AT&T’s service monopoly (the company has a five-year agreement with Apple to be the sole provider in the U.S.)

Is an unlocked device the only hope for U.S. users who don’t want to be tied into a long-term contract with AT&T?

Not so, says Johnny Appleseed, a blogger on GigaOm, a tech weblog published by San Francisco based GigaOmniMedia, Inc.

Appleseed describes a way to use other capabilities of the iPhone – PDA, WiFi, Internet tablet – without the AT&T service.

In effect, he recommends a quickie activation – activating the device in iTunes, as required – and then cancelling within 48 hours of activation – to avoid being charged the US$39 activation/$175 cancellation fee.

All you pay, he says, is a prorated charge for the number of days you were active – and that amounts to just a few bucks.

According to Appleseed while the phone, voicemail and SMS features of the iPhone will no longer work when disconnected from the AT&T service – all the other capabilities, including the WiFi will.

Appleseed says he’s tried this strategy and it’s worked like a charm for him.

After you’ve done the initial activation, he says, nothing – not a hard reset, nor removing the SIM card – returns the phone back to its pre-activated “locked” (or “ibrick”) state, even when you cancel the AT&T service.

And to skeptics who believe that minus the phone, all other iPhone features come at too steep a price, Appleseed has crunched the numbers to prove this isn’t the case at all.

Of course, even if all this is true, there remains the question again of the legality and questionable ethics of a signing up for a service with the full knowledge that you’re going to cancel in a few days.

For users who aren’t keen to sign a two-year data contract with AT&T, aren’t bent on using the phone function, but would like to take advantage of the iPod and Wi-Fi capabilities of the iPhone, another hacker – Jon Lech Johansen – has posted a method of activating the iPhone without iTunes on a blog post titled iPhone Independence Day.

Johansen – better known as DVD Jon – is a hacker who helped develop the DeCSS tool for decrypting DVDs.

Three years ago, he reverse engineered Apple FairPlay v1 and authored an open source C implementation of FairPlay. The implementation found its way into several tools (m4p2mp4, playfair and hymn).

In his blog post Johansen writes: “I’ve found a way to activate a brand new unactivated iPhone without giving any of your money or personal information to AT&T. The iPhone does not have phone capability, but the iPod and WiFi work.”

All that aside, what has this entire discussion got to do with Canadians, who still have absolutely no idea when Apple will launch the device here?

Is waiting and griping our only course of action?

Another option being discussed is that – when or if the phone is eventually successfully unlocked – Canadians use it on the Rogers network, which technically is the same as AT&T’s.

Rogers itself appears, though, to be discouraging this.

A Rogers wireless spokesperson has cautioned that since the iPhone has been optimized to function on the AT&T (Cingular) network, there’s no telling what issues the Canadian user could face.

It may turn out to be nothing more than an expensive paperweight in Canada right now, she warned.

Rogers has also stated that it’s against their policy to unlock the phones of other networks, but hasn’t stated whether Rogers would allow already unlocked iPhones to be used on its network.

Meanwhile, a rumored software update for the iPhone, expected to be released in a few days, could undo some of the progress hackers made towards unlocking the phone.

“If Apple releases [the] update that includes ‘fixes’ for our efforts so far, it will be a setback,” a hacker who wished to remain anonymous said. “I don’t know if it will be a permanent one.”

He said hackers working together to unlock the iPhone don’t belong to a specific group, and don’t plan to claim credit for their work. “We just want to see the hardware freed. We accept that others will exploit those works but hopefully it will be a lesson to Apple.”

“They’re such a

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