Update: Apple jumps gun, delivers early iOS 4.3 update for AT&T iPhone, iPad

Adds Wi-Fi tethering, iTunes sharing; patches nearly 60 bugs, which may throw wrench into hackers' plans at Pwn2Own

Apple today released iOS 4.3, an upgrade for its iPhone and iPad operating system, pushing the update to users two days early.

Last week, Apple said it would roll out iOS 4.3 on Friday, March 11, the same day that its new iPad 2 goes on sale. The company did not immediately respond today to questions about why it jumped the gun.

But the annual Pwn2Own hacking contest, where an iPhone will be one of four smartphones targeted by researchers, was not the reason.

According to Peter Vreugdenhil, of HP TippingPoint, Pwn2Own's sponsor, the smartphone's operating systems were "frozen" two weeks before today's contest tip-off, and so the target iPhone 4 will not sport iOS 4.3.

"Exploit development does sometimes rely on certain versions and that is the reason we have frozen the devices," said Vreugdenhil in an e-mail reply to questions today.

Among the new features in iOS 4.3 are Personal Hotspot, Apple's term for Wi-Fi tethering; Home Sharing, which lets users access their iTunes collections on their Macs or PCs from an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch; and a faster edition of the Safari browser based on Apple's new Nitro JavaScript engine.

Personal Hotspot lets iPhone 4 owners create a temporary Wi-Fi hotspot, which other hardware, like a tablet or notebook, can use to connect to the Internet. To use the Wi-Fi tethering, customers must sign up with the service with their mobile carrier.

AT&T, which earlier said it would support Personal Hotspot on Friday, charges $45 per month for a bundle that includes tethering and its Data Pro plan, with a combined allowance of 4GB of data per month. Data usage above the 4GB allotment runs $10 per gigabyte.

According to an AT&T spokesman, the company's tethering plan is available for ordering today.

Also included in the iOS 4.3 update are patches for 59 vulnerabilities, the bulk of them in WebKit, the open-source browser engine that powers Apple's Safari on both the desktop and on its mobile devices.

The patches may play a part in the Pwn2Own contest, however. If the vulnerability used by a researcher to hack the iPhone has been fixed in iOS 4.3, TippingPoint will not award the $15,000 prize to him or her, Vreugdenhil confirmed today. Instead, the cash will go to the first researcher who exploits the "frozen" version of iOS using a bug still present in iOS 4.3.

"As long as the latest version still has the vulnerability, and the researcher has successfully 'pwned' with the frozen version, he or she will have won," said Vreugdenhil.

Apple has spelled out the iOS 4.3 improvements and additions on its Web site.

iOS 4.3 can be applied to the GSM iPhone 4 -- the model that works on AT&T's network -- the iPhone 3GS, the iPad, and the third- and fourth-generation iPod Touch. Those iPod Touch models were released in September 2009 and September 2010, respectively.

The update can be downloaded by connecting an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to a Mac or PC equipped with Apple's iTunes music software.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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