Unlocking Apple's iPhone is legal, ethical, and just plain fun.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Oct. 4 2007 3:33 PM

The iPhone Freedom Fighters

Don't be afraid: Unlocking Apple's superphone is legal, ethical, and just plain fun.

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As I unlocked it, I was constantly aware of the risk of turning my brand-new phone into a gleaming paperweight. Trust is crucial—you must believe that various strangers have written programs to help you, not hurt you. During the "jailbreak" phase of the activation process, you stare at an image of prison bars for two minutes. This is not reassuring. At the penultimate stage, you need to trust your iPhone to an entity named "Cyberduck." At another point I hit a long delay for want of a paper clip. None of this is for the faint of heart, but it's also exhilarating. Especially when you hit the last screen:

*Completed.
Enjoy.

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The good news is that my iPhone works flawlessly. With my existing T-Mobile account, I get 1,300 more minutes of talk time than I would have received from AT&T for a comparably priced plan; I also now have a phone that I can take to Asia and Europe. I avoided a $200 termination fee, AT&T's activation fee, and having to wait for AT&T to port my existing number. On the downside, I don't have AT&T's visual voicemail, and I have to stay away from Apple's software upgrades, which might brick the phone. But it's easy to download third-party apps, like iPong. Best of all, my geek friends are impressed.

Did I do anything wrong? When you buy an iPhone, Apple might argue that you've made an implicit promise to become an AT&T customer. But I did no such thing. I told the employees at the Apple Store that I wanted to unlock it, and at no stage of the purchasing process did I explicitly agree to be an AT&T customer. There was no sneakiness; I just did something they didn't like.

Meanwhile, lest we forget, I did just throw down more than $400 for this little toy. I'm no property-rights freak, but that iPhone is now my personal property, and that ought to stand for something. General Motors advises its customers to use "genuine parts," but it can't force you to buy gas from Exxon. Honda probably hates it when you put some crazy spoiler on your Civic, but no one says it's illegal or wrong.

The worst thing that you can say about me is that I've messed with Apple's right to run its business exactly the way it wants. But to my mind, that's not a right you get in the free market or in our legal system. Instead, Apple is facing trade-offs rightly beyond its control. When people unlock phones, Apple loses revenue it was hoping for, but also gains customers who would have never bought an iPhone in the first place. That's life.

And what, exactly, is Apple afraid of? In the short life of the iPhone, its fans have built surprisingly good, if unauthorized, third-party programs, ranging from Sudoku to a great app that uploads your photos directly to Flickr. As economist Eric Von Hippel teaches in Democratizing Innovation, much product improvement comes from users who monkey with and enhance the products they use every day. Apple's aggressive upgrade strategy is not just blocking unlocking but also shutting down its "Think Different" customers. Apple is making its product less valuable to its most loyal fans, and that's a big mistake.

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