21 December 2009

Making your iPhone better

The iPhone has some missing features, such as a simple external indicator that you have email/SMS/Calendar reminder. Switching between applications is also very clunky, particularly when your application shuts down and you want to check something and then go back to it.

The answer is to jailbreak a iPhone (or iPod Touch for that matter). This lets one install applications that are not approved by Apple. While some people have difficulties doing this, many people find it straightforward on a iPhone 3GS with OS 3.1.2 (current at time of writing).
  • Go to http://blackra1n.com/ and choose the Macintosh or Windows application. 
  • Read and follow instructions
  • Be patient at each step
The user is then are prompted to install Rock or Cydia. These are, essentially, application stores just like iTunes. One can install free or paid applications, and some paid applications have a trial period (you usually don't see this on iTunes - only "lite" versions).

Popular applications are:
  • Categories - group your apps into folders
  • Kirikae - background and switch to any app. eg: I don't have to quit the Tom Tom GPS to check mail
  • iPhone Tool - turns on and off "Flight Mode" automatically each day (good at night)
  • MyWi - turns your iPhone into a modem by BlueTooth, USB or WiFi
  • Backgrounder - helps with the backgrounding of applications.
  • IntelliScreen - a great home screen, showing email, diary and more while locked
  • AnyRing - make anything a ringtone
Caveats? You might find yourself using more data and exceeding limits; you might reduce battery life; you might have trouble during the jailbreak. But then again, you might not. You might even be breaching the license Apple granted you to use the iPhone software. You may even be breaching copyright legislation.

Software license: Apple believes that it is a breach of the iPhone Software License Agreement, and therefore your license to use your iPhone (well strictly speaking, the software in it) is immediately revoked.

Legislation: It also seems that Apple thinks it violates the USA Digital Millenium Copyright Act 1998.

Apple might also think that Blackra1n defeats a "technological protection measure" under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 but the language is very different to the DMCA. However that alone is only part of any argument. Further, any argument may require understanding how Blackra1n works. In Blackrain's favour, it may be that s 47D of the Copyright Act relating to making interoperable products may come into play. Of course, s 47D directly contradicts Apple's ISLA, which attempts to remove the user's rights to make an adaptation of the iPhone software.

Why would Apple care about you hacking your iPhone? It's sold you the hardware and made a dollar, so shouldn't it be happy?  Publicly stated reasons are a bit too altruistic or don't hold water. I can think of three reasons:

1. Could it lose money? Well, you can still purchase from the iTunes Store, but if you purchase from Rock or Cydia then Apple will not earn the cut it gets from the iTunes Store. This seems to be the real reason that sets this situation apart from, say, Sony's PlayStation. You can install Linux on a PS3, and it becomes a powerful, potentially multi-node computer. There are 'supercomputers' made out of clusters of PS3s, and Sony actually explicitly permits this and even used this fact in its marketing.

2. Another reason Apple might be against jailbreaking is that jailbreaking can allow a user to remove the carrier lock from an iPhone, allowing them to use the phone on any GSM carrier. You can buy unlocked phones in several countries, including Australia, but you pay a lot for them. In the USA you can only use AT&T, and the purchase price is heavily subsidised by the money you'll pay during your two year contract. AT&T and Apple are understandably concerned by users buying a subsidised phone and then moving to another carrier - both companies lose. However, if you buy an unlocked phone then this reason doesn't apply.

3. Applications obtained through the iTunes Store are vetted by Apple. This is a somewhat impenetrable process, but is said by Apple to be an effort to ensure that malicious applications are not distributed, thereby harming Apple's reputation. Unfortunately the vetting process seems very uneven, sometimes slow, and there are many instances of applications copying data off iPhones and sending that data back to the developer. So again, this doesn't seem to be the protection that Apple claims.

One day I might do a more thorough analysis of this.