There's more than one way to break your phone free of Apple and AT&T's constraints, but for now the rewards barely outweigh the drawbacks
The day the iPhone was released in June, a cottage industry sprang up with the goal of freeing the phone from the restrictions Apple (AAPL) and its partner, AT&T, have placed on it. The top goal has been to eliminate the requirement that all iPhone buyers sign up for two years of AT&T (T) service. It appears they have succeeded, but the results are not for everyone.
I've spent the past week or so testing an "unlocked" iPhone supplied by a Canadian company called PureMobile. To release the phone from AT&T's control, the company modifies Apple's hardware based on a procedure spelled out by George Hotz, a 17-year-old student at Rochester Institute of Technology. The phone, sold on the PureMobile Web site, costs around $600, which is $200 more than the just-slashed price of a standard 8-gigabyte iPhone.
I used the unlocked iPhone on the T-Mobile and AT&T wireless networks after inserting SIMs (the small cards in each phone that identify the subscriber) swapped from my other mobile phones. There were a few hitches. With a non-AT&T SIM, I had to change some simple settings to gain access to e-mail or the Web over the phone network. And neither of the two SIM cards allowed me to use the iPhone's visual voicemail feature, which lets the user go straight to any voice message by selecting it from a list on the screen. On the plus side, the unlocked iPhone let me cruise around on Wi-Fi networks without any SIM card at all. You can't do that on a locked iPhone. Oddly enough, the YouTube application did not work on this PureMobile unit.
Some of these capabilities are very cool, but the unlocked phone makes sense only for customers who have a good reason not to go with the standard AT&T deal—such as living outside the U.S. and really, really craving an iPhone. You'll still be stuck with relatively slow phone networks, even in Europe, and there's the fact that the hardware modification voids the Apple warranty. PureMobile is working on a third-party warranty arrangement, but don't expect to get any tech support from Apple for a modified iPhone.
There's also the possibility, which PureMobile warns of on its Web site, that a future Apple software update might relock the phone and leave you with an elegant but expensive brick. You can get around that by refusing to accept updates, but then you can't use new applications, such as Wi-Fi access to the iTunes Store. Nor will you get updated bug fixes and security patches. The phone I was testing was already behind on Apple software updates, and I didn't dare try installing the latest version of iTunes.
As you might expect, there's more than one way to unlock an iPhone. A company called iPhoneSimFree has a software patch that rewrites some of the iPhone's built-in code. This avoids warranty issues, but its legality may be challenged under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. (Both AT&T and Apple declined to comment on the subject.) iPhoneSimFree's U.S. retailer, Wireless Imports, is taking advance orders for the $99 software.
The Hacker Option
There's one other effort I should mention, from a band of hackers—in the original sense of programmers who want to take things apart and make them work better. Called the iPhone Dev Team, they're working on both unlocking the network and making it possible for iPhone owners to install applications beyond those Apple has chosen to supply. I can recommend this software only for adventurous folks who have some knowledge of how Apple's OS X software works. Besides, at this point there really aren't any compelling programs to download to your iPhone.
While these projects may not be attractive to most ordinary iPhone users, they are important. The iPhone is too good a product to be limited to the narrow choices that Apple and AT&T want to offer. More power to the folks who are working, often as volunteers, to make the product better.