Is Apple planning to iBrick unlocked iPhones?

Is Apple planning to iBrick unlocked iPhones?

Summary: Wow! I didn't think that a short post on Apple's press release about how an upcoming iPhone firmware update might brick unlocked iPhones could generate so much email! I think that there must be a fair few unlocked iPhones out there.

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Wow!  I didn't think that a short post on Apple's press release about how an upcoming iPhone firmware update might brick unlocked iPhones could generate so much email!  I think that there must be a fair few unlocked iPhones out there.

Rather than try to answer all the emails and comments individually I thought I'd compile an FAQ based on what we know about this update and its likely effects on unlocked iPhones.

Q: What do we know about the update?

A: All the information comes from an Apple press releases which came out yesterday.  Here's all that it contained:

Apple has discovered that many of the unauthorized iPhone unlocking programs available on the Internet cause irreparable damage to the iPhone’s software, which will likely result in the modified iPhone becoming permanently inoperable when a future Apple-supplied iPhone software update is installed. Apple plans to release the next iPhone software update, containing many new features including the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, later this week. Apple strongly discourages users from installing unauthorized unlocking programs on their iPhones. Users who make unauthorized modifications to the software on their iPhone violate their iPhone software license agreement and void their warranty. The permanent inability to use an iPhone due to installing unlocking software is not covered under the iPhone’s warranty.

Q: Will this update brick my unlocked iPhone?

A: Maybe, maybe not.  What Apple said is:

... many of the unauthorized iPhone unlocking programs available on the Internet cause irreparable damage to the iPhone’s software, which will likely result in the modified iPhone becoming permanently inoperable when a future Apple-supplied iPhone software update is installed.

The key word there is "likely."  My guess is that if this update was safe, Apple wouldn't have said anything.  I seriously doubt that Apple would try to bluff people over this and if I had an unlocked iPhone I would take this warning seriously.

Q: How is this update sent to the iPhone?

A: Via iTunes.  It's not sent over the air (OTA) and users can decline the update if they wish.

Q: Do I have to install this update?

A: No.

Q: Am I covered by my warranty if my iPhone is bricked?

A: According to Apple, no.  However, if you bought it on a credit card you might be able to claim under insurance offered by your card provider [UPDATED - Most insurance policies won't cover you because you tampered with the phone].

Q: Can bricked iPhones be unbricked?

A: Depends on how clever the hackers are!

Q: What about iPhones unlocked to run third-party apps?  Will they be bricked?

A: Since Apple specifically refers to iPhones unlocked from AT&T, I'd say you're safe ... for now at any rate.

Q: Will I be able to unlock my iPhone after the update?

A: It is highly unlikely that current unlocking methods will work on an updated iPhone.  As to whether the new firmware can be unlocked, well, we'll have to wait and see how clever the hackers are!

Q: I paid $100 for the unlock tool - do I have any comeback against the seller?

A: Doubt it.  If you paid by credit card then maybe ... but probably not.

Q: Will I be able to roll back the firmware to a previous, unlockable, version?

A: No idea.

Q: If I have an unlocked iPhone can't I just restore the firmware to re-lock it and be safe from this update?

A: No, relocking an iPhone is far more complicated than that.  The Unofficial Apple Weblog has details on how to do this.  However, beware!  Some people seem to be having troubles with this relocking process.

Q: Is Apple deliberately bricking unlocked iPhones?

A: No idea, but I'm sure that the hackers will let us know soon enough!

Q: If an Apple update bricks my unlocked iPhone, can I sue?

A: I am not a lawyer, so I can't comment on this.

Q: I have an unlocked iPhone.  What do you suggest I do?

A: First off - Don't panic!  Apple can't push this update onto you without you agreeing to install it (assuming that Apple doesn't have a backdoor to the phone ...).  You can continue to run on the existing firmware for now, although I guess Apple could push the update as mandatory if you want to access iTunes later. 

What I'd do if I had an unlocked iPhone is sit tight and not install any updates.  Wait and see what happens and what the fallout it.  It's possible that iPhones won't be bricked and it's also possible that if they are, they can be unbricked somehow.  I wouldn't go doing anything rash such as trying to relock the phone because that could brick the phone itself.  Be patient!

Topics: iPhone, Apple, Smartphones

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76 comments
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  • In A.D. 2007, war was beginning...

    All your iPhone are belong to us.
    You are on the way to destruction !!

    For great justice...
    Scrat
    • um,

      What??
      Tigertank
      • Dude...

        Where you BEEN?

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_your_base
        Real World
  • Apple has become Microsoft on Steroids

    We control the hardware... We control the software... You WILL use only what the Apple says...

    "1984" seems more like Apple than IBM or Microsoft.
    rhwells@...
    • uh...

      Being that the EULA states that if you make modifications to the software you have broken your warranty. So if you unlock your phone to use a service other than what the iPhone was designed for, then its your fault that new updates wont work on it. Even if Apple didnt care, there is no possible way they could support all these hacks with their update.
      Stuka
    • Microsft does the same exact thing

      The X-Box is a perfect example.
      voska
      • The term 'brick' did not exist until Microsoft did it on the XBox.

        Another Microsoft innovation!
        nomorems
        • Not true

          I bricked stuff way before the Xbox!
          Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
    • Ironic . . .

      . . .wasn't it Apple who brought us the "1984" ad at the Superbowl?
      critic-at-arms
    • Is that a compliment?

      Hey, iPhone owners KNOW they were doing something wrong. I mean Apple and AT&T have an EXCLUSIVE contract and when you purchase the phone you MUST activate with AT&T. Do you expect to use your DISH with Comcast or vice-versa? Do you expect to use your NexTel push-to-talk with Verizon?

      You do the deed you pay the consequences. No one was forced to get an iPhone.
      nomorems
  • iSue

    That should be the mantra of anyone screwed by Apple. You will have a lot of friends out their for class action. If you build a web page they will come. I must admit that this DRM crap disgusts to point of withdrawal from purchasing. I hate my iPod an everything it stands for.
    Kungfoofighterx
    • Screwed by Apple?

      Why, because these people broke the EULA by modifying their phone? Do you also think people should sue car companies when they modify their car engines, and then *gasp* their warranties are void *gasp*
      Stuka
      • EULA applies to software, not hardware

        "Bricking" a phone means rendering it useless, and this particular situation is focusing on a possible hardware issue.

        You have no right to alter the SOFTWARE under the EULA, but you can do whatever you want to the hardware, you own it now that you have paid for it.

        People have the right to unlock the phones (exception to DMCA) they don't have the right to expect continuance of service if they do.

        Apple can update and restore the software to the original settings if they want, which would essentially reverse any unlocking. They can also program hardships for unlockers. But, they cannot, under any circumstances, intentionally damage hardware.

        The best way to avoid this if you have an unlocked iPhone is not install the update. Sure, you won't get the iTunes WiFi features, but that is your problem as you unlocked the phone, and knew that new services would be outside of your reach.

        I think that all the hubbub is a bit silly. If the update is optional, then were is the forced bricking? They announced what could happen, so they gave fair warning. If you update anyway, then you are ignorning the warning and any adverse consequences would be on your head.

        That's probably why they published the warning in the first place - to cover their butts when it does brick the phones.

        Regardless, simple solution - if you hack, don't update. Seems like common sense. I mean, if they were really trying to fix the hacks, would they have announced it?

        Tin foil hats abound today.
        laura.b
        • In that case

          it only applies to those very few that unlocked them via hardware. Which is a rather involved process. The majority of people unlocked them via software. These phones wont be bricked, but rather they wil just require a software reset.
          Stuka
          • No, you misunderstood.

            The warning that Apple sent out is that the software unlocking procedures "may have" caused irreparable damage to the phone and updating it may brick it.

            Many who are more well-versed than I can explain to you why this means that updating the software can damage the device on a hardware level.

            But the updates and the "bricking" affect those that have used software unlocking.

            It doesn't matter.

            If you have an unlocked iPhone then don't update it. Lack of access to new services, features, fixes, and updates are what ou get for hacking and unlocking. Easy solution.

            But that's too easy of a solution. Instead, it must be blown out or proportion, made to seem as though it will affect every single iPhone owner, and bitched about.
            laura.b
          • Hmmm, just curious what software changes

            in a solid state device could damage an IC post update? If Apple came up with a way to fry circuits by simply modifying their software then I'm fairly certain the NSA would love to speak with them.
            maldain
          • Just simply

            throwing back what the announcement from Apple themselves says:

            "Apple has discovered that many of the unauthorized iPhone unlocking programs available on the Internet cause irreparable damage to the iPhone’s software, which will likely result in the modified iPhone becoming permanently inoperable when a future Apple-supplied iPhone software update is installed. Apple plans to release the next iPhone software update, containing many new features including the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, later this week. Apple strongly discourages users from installing unauthorized unlocking programs on their iPhones. Users who make unauthorized modifications to the software on their iPhone violate their iPhone software license agreement and void their warranty. The permanent inability to use an iPhone due to installing unlocking software is not covered under the iPhone’s warranty."

            If you want it explained, you have to ask someone who knows more about it. But ^this says that a software unlock combined with a software update could render the iPhone "permenantly inoperable."

            If it were simply software, could the software not be restored back to the original setting? A simple erase and reinstall? If so, then it wouldn't be "permenantly inoperable."

            I think that most people are interpretting it as hardware because that's the only way to literally permenantly disable it.

            Perhaps they chose poor wording.
            laura.b
          • PS

            Who said that it had to fry the circuits to be damage the hardware? All it would really have to do is totally lock out any control over powering the device on and boom, inoperable.

            No one at Apple specifically said "hardware." This is the inferrence of people who have read the statement and can logically conclude that permenant damage must mean hardware.

            I don't know what it would do. I'm not a programmer. I can see logical methods through which hardware is disabled permenantly with software.
            laura.b
          • Bios and Flash, etc

            You can destroy any computer device by flashing garbage into the BIOS. The flash (since Apple has all the unlocking code and examined it carefully) can flash the iPhone BIOS (there is zero chance they did not make it firmware upgradeable) to detect the "rogue" software and refuse to boot. There is likely a video BIOS as well, etc.

            There is a reason "DO NOT REMOVE OR POWER OFF YOUR DEVICE" during the firmware upgrade process for all your electronics.

            TripleII
            TripleII-21189418044173169409978279405827
          • Actually,

            the announcement makes the statement that the software would be irreparably damaged not the hardware. Even if you screw up the flash bios you will not render the hardware useless. You would just need to reinstall the bios on the hardware in the worse case scenario. Most bios chips still maintain a ROM portion with certain defaults and a flash update is not going to change that ROM portion. In most cases you can restore the default ROM by removing all power sources to the chip which effectively erases any modifications made to the flash (updatable) portion of the chip.
            I am not sure how much the iPhone depends on its flash (updatable) portion of the chip to operate since I don't own an iPhone. However, other hardware that have a flash bios will generally run on the defaults hardwired into the chip.
            alaniane@...