The iPhone might never be free of AT&T

The iPhone might never be free of AT&T

Summary: I've been taking a look around the web at the efforts by hackers to free the iPhone from the AT&T shackles so that it could be used as an iPod or with other network providers, both in the US and abroad. I've come to the conclusion that while it might be possible to unlock the iPhone, it'll never be truly free of AT&T. Here's why.


I've been taking a look around the web at the efforts by hackers to free the iPhone from the AT&T shackles so that it could be used as an iPod or with other network providers, both in the US and abroad. I've come to the conclusion that while it might be possible to unlock the iPhone, it'll never be truly free of AT&T. Here's why.

For each new AT&T customer that signs up, Apple gets a cut. It's the gift that keeps on giving.The iPhone has changed how cellphones are sold, and when you look closely at the implications of this change, you'll see that it's not for the better. So far the model that we've seen is that the networks offer customers heavily discounted cellphones as a lure to sign up to an extended contract with the network. The discounted cellphone will be hardware locked to the network. Now, it is possible to unlock phones. Most network operators will do this for you for a fee (after your contract is up, of if you choose to end the contract early and pay an additional fee) or you can take the third-party route and get your phone unlocked without the network provider's knowledge. Either way, once the phone is unlocked, you're free of the network.

Steve Jobs, being the disruptive bloke that he is, has tweaked this model dramatically in such a way that Apple and AT&T benefits and the customer loses out. The iPhone is one of the most DRM-ladened gadgets to hit shelves. It's designed that way. Apple generated a huge amount of hype surrounding the gadget which in turn created an unprecedented demand. Anyone wanting an iPhone has to buy one from Apple and if they want to use it for anything (even as an iPod) they have to sign up to AT&T for two years, and for each new AT&T customer that signs up, Apple gets a cut. It's the gift that keeps on giving.

But the iPhone is not just software-locked to Apple's chosen network, it's hardware locked too. Don't believe me? Then try connecting an iPhone to a CDMA2000 network such as offered by Sprint or Verizon. You can't, and that's because the phone doesn't support it on a hardware level. Even if hackers can succeed in unlocking the iPhone software updates that are drip-fed to the device via iTunes will periodically restore the system image and these will undoubtedly come with more sophisticated network locks. Sure, hackers will be able to overcome these new "features," but until they do, your $600 AT&T-free iPhone will be nothing more than an iPaperweight. Even if you could completely break free of AT&T's grip, you're left with a phone that still only feels at home on a third-world style network. Any iPhones that see light of day in Europe or Japan are going to have to support 3G, but these will be equally locked and bound to networks in those countries (so, for example, the UK iPhone will probably be bound to O2).

An added complication is that you're unlikely to see AT&T or Apple offering iPhone unlock codes to customers wanting to break free. These codes would be a weak link in the DRM chain and make it easier for customers to defect from AT&T en masse, costing both AT&T and Apple.

Also, I keep thinking about what provisions AT&T and Apple might have put in place for weeding out iPhones sold but not connected to the network. It's quite possible that these phones could be identified (using the IMEI number) and banned, effectively bricking them. Since it's a case of Apple and AT&T protecting their profits, I wouldn't put anything past them.

The iPhone has changed the way cellphones are sold, and not in a good way. Apple has introduced high levels of DRM to a piece of consumer electronics that previously had ineffective and loosely-guarded DRM. And since hundreds of thousands of customers have merrily blundered into a new era of DRM, it's likely that other networks and cellphone manufacturers will follow suit.

Thanks Steve!


Topics: Networking, Apple, iPhone, Mobility, AT&T

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  • Do me a favour Adrian...

    Enough with the iPhone posts, please.

    Surely there must be something else you can blog about?
    • I am in agreement with Scrat here Adrian and for that

      I CURSE you Adrian!!!

      Pagan jim
  • Adrian...

    Seek Medical help you are obsessing over the iPhone way to much !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Hardware lock???? er No

    Does any GSM only phone work on an CDMA2000 network??? er... No.

    Is AT&T the only network that it will be released on??? er No.

    Have you forgotten about the rest of the world? err Yes

    If the iPhone isn't cracked before the european launch, the fact that it will exist in non- AT&T flavours will make it more likely that it will be. After all Apple hadn't chosen their european partner when the AT&T deal was set up, so it must be possible for other GSM networks to work...

    And to be honest a single european network is unlikely.. as nobody has a network that covers all of europe! so it's going to have to support loads of networks, and then roaming will be required, And if it's locked down completely then they will have to deal with european law...

    have you really thought this through?
  • Good Observations, Early Conclusions

    There's a complicated pas de deux here. Apple moved a lot of units over the
    weekend which meant the first adopters were impressed in the promise of the
    device and tolerant of the AT&T lock-in. If it turns out that, down the road, iPhone
    users want to change carriers, then the other carriers and Apple will have to come
    to terms, because the alternative is that the demand for iPhones will dry up real
    quick. The only open question is the length of exclusivity in the Apple/AT&T deal.

    As for changing how phones (or even consumer electronic devices) are sold and to
    the detriment of the device owners, you may have a point there, but this is day 6
    and its way too early to call the outcome.
    • The iPhone has changed how cellphones are sold? How so?

      Something maybe overlooked being that the only real change is that there were no discounts applied to the purchase price.
      Yes, it is locked into AT&T,( now, and quite possibly forever via hardware if you are correct), but then, what other manufacturer will do the same as it now just raised the cost of their manufacturing process by adding additional steps and parts to their assembly line?

      Will Verizon pay additional cost per phone for a hardware lock? Sprint? How does that benefit them in any way?

      AT&T may have forced Apple into these conditions as a part of the deal of footing some of the cost.
  • Those greedy weasels...... oh, wait...

    ...never mind. I don't care. Don't have an iPhone. Won't have an iPhone.

    True.... AT&T, Apple (and Microsoft and all the rest) are about as greedy as you can get. They will all do whatever they can get away with when it comes to ripping you off for every last dime.

    Microsoft is no different. You're locked into their OS. What if they decide to lock out your copy of Vista (don't think they can't do it), for whatever reason?

    The really issue here is that people are buying Vista and iPhones. If they get DRM'd into hell, whose fault is that? What would the great Forrest Gump say? I think it would be "stupid is as stupid does".

    If you buy the iPhone but don't like being locked in and at the whims of AT&T, then you're stupid. It's just about as simple as that.
  • partially true, but...


    Never forget that in a capitalist society, the consumer has more power than they realize. If they do not buy the product, the company will have to stop making them or go broke. Steve Jobs does not want to go broke.

    If it is as bad as you say - I am not arguing that point here - then all people have to do is not buy the product and speak out as to why they are not buying the product. Then, Apple + AT&T's competitors can make a product more in line to consumers' tastes.

    I know this sounds simplistic. I also know that Apple has a great marketing arm - they learned from M$ I guess - and sells iPods like crazy. However, at some point in time, if enough of us keep discussing the issues, and if we engage academia so that future professionals get involved, eventually, change will come of it.
  • try again - T-Mobile has the franchise in Germany for iPhone

    Right it will not work with Sprint CDMA... but then Sprint CDMA does not work with Europe's or at7t's GSM either - so is it not in the same boat? T-Mobile got the GSM deal for Germany for iPhone - so you think that maybe they are the rock Steve J. is holding over at&t's head in the US?

    Lock - in - schlock - in .... use your Blackberry without hitting a RIM computing center. Unless everything is open source you are locked in to someones profit center, or then would not be doing it. get over it.
  • Umm...unlocking phones is easy

    Unlocking phones is easy. I have T-Mobile and I was travelling overseas and wanted to unlock my RAZR so that I could use it with a SIM card I was going to purchase from a local carrier when I got to my destination.

    Before my trip, I just called T-Mobile and asked them to unlock my phone. I got a code emailed to me 2 days later, and just punched it and now I have an unlocked phone. No fee.

    As far as CDMA vs. GSM. Apple made the right call going GSM only. Most networks around the world are NOT CDMA. And every phone I have ever seen is either CDMA or GSM but not both. I'm not seeing what the big deal is here.
    • How to Unlock your Phone

      There is this wonderful thing called the law. According to it if you pay full purchase price of the phone they have to unlock it. I used to work for Cingular (back when they purchased ATT) and they would not explain this to customers.

      Here is the trick to unlocking a phone thru any company. You can call and explain that you are going overseas and if you are then they will normally unlock your phone or provide you the calling rights so you can use it overseas. Or if you purchased the phone at full retail price. They will not unlock it for free if you dont own the phone. If you buy a 2 year plan and recieve the discount they own the phone for those 2 years. Kinda of like a lease option.

      I wouldnt buy a Iphone anyway due to not enough storage on the thing. It is going to replace the Ipod? With 8 gigs of storage it couldnt hold much music. Plus it is an apple product and a first gen at that.

      So can we please get away from the hype of the Iphone???
    • a phone that is Both:,C201,P463
  • eh?

    You just discovered that a GSM phone doesn't work on a CDMA network? What's that got to do with the iPhone? You may aswell be complaining that your bluetooth adapter doesn't connect to your wireless lan.
  • Did you actually think before you wrote this?

    The iPhone is a quad-band GSM phone, it uses different frequencies than CDMA2000, TDMA, PCS and the other contender in the States. GSM is actually supported all over the world (much broader than CDMA, the next closest contender). The phone will technically work on any GSM network (in the US that is T-Mobile and AT&T, in the rest of the world just look around). While it is not a 3G phone in the States, it may have UMTS (3G) in Europe/Asia.

    For the record, I have no intention of getting an iPhone, though I do have a GSM/WCDMA (3G) phone.
  • iphone unlock

    it's a legal requirement in the EU, that any operator who supplies locked phones, also has to provide an unlocking service. They are enttitled to make you pay in full for the phone either directly, or through some minimum contract period and they are entitled to charge a small service fee for the unlocking, but unlock it they must.
    If iTunes subsequently relocks it later, they will be in breach of these terms.
  • Allegiances

    The iPhone has and will shifted allegiances from the carrier to the device. Tying
    demand to the device which drops in price or elevates it's capabilities, is the
    opposite to the network rent increases from the carriers. A large number of iPhone
    customers represents a large number of people who form a powerful lobby in the
    face of possible carrier collusion. Competition between the carriers is a good
    thing. Playing them against one another is a good thing. But to open the iPhone to
    multiple carriers is to invite either collusion or antitrust scrutiny. Yes folks, that's
    right, counterintuitive as it may seem. If iPhone is as popular as they want it to be,
    and it works with all carriers, it's OS is seen as having undue power over the larger
    market and ALL carriers. It amounts to the same thing as Microsoft's broad and
    coercive licensing. Apple knows that real competition is cultivated over time in an
    open market, not overnight in a platform market. A vertical value proposition
    invites competition, it does not hinder it. It competes against both other vertical
    propositions, as well as other broad propositions. The difference? Choose your
    allegiance, hardware or software. If you're unsure as to how these align by now,
    and which has more potential, go back to the remedial class.

    Once again, I believe Adrian has it fundamentally wrong. You've not been offered
    AT&T, you've been offered a phone call. Take it or leave it, but don't decry those
    with some spending money and a different view of antitrust. Those working under
    the yoke of a convicted and securely leashed monopolist should think twice about
    lecturing those who don't.

    The iPhone, in forming what amounts to a "union" with interests in a common
    device increases exponentially consumer bargaining power. Apple becomes the
    conduit and Union rep.

    Need evidence? They are now aligned against the Music companies and their DRM,
    and act on behalf of consumers for consistent pricing. They are standing up
    against Universal. They will stand up against AT&T, but they need a base of power
    from which to do that.

    Narrow and myopic conclusions are coming from short term and self involved
    thinking. Real and substantive choice is replacing fake choice. I believe and hope,
    that institutional employment will never "require" you to use an iPhone. As far as
    I'm concerned, that's a sign of progress. The champions of choice are in fact the
    same obedient lap dogs they always were, while the mindless cultists have set out
    on their own path.
    Harry Bardal
    • Nail on head...

      Excellent post, and better yet you hit it right on.
    • Total and complete Rubbish

      Harry, I have to commend you! You have raised the art of distorting the truth to a new level.
      • Logic

        Those of us who admire logic, both human logic, and machine logic, find it an
        effective guide. If the market and this market "share" is an inviolate indicator of
        social wisdom, then live with it. In the past you've used market share as a blunt
        instrument to galvanize support behind the PC economy. You've used it as an
        excuse, as a shield, and as a weapon in these arguments. We on the diminutive
        side of share have done the opposite. We've called a true and open market
        capricious, fickle, and turbulent. We've made the point endlessly that markets are
        not just subject to change. Indeed, if the open market asserts itself over a
        surrogate "platform" market, as is the case now, then this newly engaged market
        is change itself.

        How does this shake down now? As the iPhone shows remarkable uptake, the
        people who have shown such wisdom for supporting Windows based solutions in
        the past, are all of a sudden, spoiled, ignorant dilettantes for buying one? Is
        wanting one a lesser crime? You tell me. On June 29th, was the market's
        unassailable wisdom, struck stupid?

        Your arguments will die by the sword that they live by. By invoking the "market's"
        opinion over your own, you've let other people do your thinking for you?in this
        matter anyway. Apple has been my foil in these debates, and I continue to lobby
        for market balance and tech diversity, not some Apple dominated utopia as has
        been your supposition. But I continue to believe the marketplace is volatile. As
        such, it's never been my argument to win. By aligning yourself in parallel with
        market share however, you've made it yours to lose.
        Harry Bardal
    • One can uderstand your need

      to defened all things Apple, to "spin" Apple's greed into something benevolent of that which it is not. If all that which you said is true, then why did Apple only sign an exclusivity clause with AT&T for 2 years (the standard industry contract?) They have plans to move the iPhone to other vendors networks

      How does the hardware lock-in help Apple? Quite simply: Apple would like more of your money, and a very shrewd move on Apple's part in that.

      For the many that will be less then enamored with the quality of the Cingular/AT&T service, or for whatever reason, that wish to move towards another vendor but also desire to continue to use their iPhone will have no choice but to re-purchase new hardware compatible with that of the new carrier, at full price.

      The fact that if a carrier's service is not that which you believe to be acceptable, an "open" phone would allow the consumer to leave their current carrier hardware in hand and sign on with a new one, though as it sits now, the consumer has lost an avenue of choice, monetarily locked in to either Apple or AT&T.

      Your post, once again, is nothing more them senseless "mumbojumbo", meant as an effort to deflect negative criticisms of percieved or noted deficiencies of an Apple product into something other than it is