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Update: Apple plays hardball: Upgrade 'bricks' unlocked iPhones

Numerous reports claim that 1.1.1 firmware update disables unlocked devices

September 27, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The iPhone firmware update released Thursday by Apple Inc. has disabled unlocked iPhones and wiped clean any evidence of unauthorized third-party applications, users and developers reported.

On Monday, Apple warned customers that unlocked iPhones might be crippled, or "bricked," by the new upgrade. From reports posted by bloggers and iPhone owners, as well as at least one group of unlock hackers, it appears the company made good on its promise.

Before the update installs, it displays a security message -- the first time Apple has done this on iPhone upgrades -- that essentially repeats the Monday caution:

"Warning: Apple has discovered that some of the unauthorized unlocking programs available on the Internet may cause irreparable damage to the iPhone's software," the message read. "If you have modified your iPhone's software, applying this software update may result in your iPhone becoming permanently inoperable."

Owners of unlocked iPhones who proceeded with the update have filed somewhat conflicting reports, but the most credible accounts conclude that their devices are incapacitated. Jim Dalrymple, the news director of Computerworld sister publication MacWorld.com, reported that staffer iPhones restarted after the update with the message "Insert an unlocked and valid SIM to activate iPhone." Only the iPhone's ability to make emergency calls remained intact, Dalrymple said.

Other reports, including one filed by the Gizmodo Web site, essentially reached the same conclusion. "The update will work OK in unlocked iPhones, but it will return your iPhone to the activation screen," Gizmodo said. "From there, no activation is possible." Even inserting a legitimate, never-before-used SIM from AT&T does not bring back a post-update unlocked iPhone, concluded Gizmodo. "The phone isn't bricked, but if it can't read a SIM, it can't dial. So it's partially bricked."

iPhoneSIMFree, a group of unnamed developers who created the first commercial unlock hack, confirmed the bricking, but also contradicted the Gizmodo account on one crucial point. "If you are using an original activated AT&T SIM, you can activate and use the phone with no issues at all," the group said on its Web site today. "Unfortunately, currently there is no way to jailbreak/reactivate the phone for use with a SIM card other than the original AT&T card."

The 1.1.1 update also disables third-party applications installed on the iPhone using the popular Installer.app hack, numerous users said. Others noted that non-iTunes ring tones, also added to iPhones using end-around software, would not work.

For those who haven't unlocked or modified their iPhones, the 152MB update presented few problems. Among its prosaic components are access to the new iTunes Wi-Fi music store, a fix for the low speakerphone and receiver volume problem many users have reported, and the ability to view e-mail attachments in both portrait and landscape mode. Also included in the update are patches for 10 vulnerabilities, seven of which involve the iPhone's built-in Safari browser.

As of 8 p.m. EDT, the iPhone Dev Team, a group of developers who earlier this week called out Apple, saying that it would come up with a way to salvage any disabled iPhone, had not issued any statement on its Web site or on the Hackint0sh message forum.

It may be some time before the full impact of the 1.1.1 update on unlocked or "modded" iPhones is known, and if iPhoneSIMFree's take is any indication, an even longer time before a way around Apple's block is discovered.

"The thousands of open source developers who have put a cumulative 10s of thousands of man hours into various apps and tools now have no way to get them onto the phone as well," iPhoneSIMFree said today. "We are all looking into the jailbreak issue as it affects us all, and we will keep updating our site as well as the open source community at large with any information we can about this."



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