Apple CEO Steve Jobs has said it's his company's job to stymie hackers who try to unlock the iPhone -- the first time the company has officially said it would fight attempts to use the popular device on 'unauthorised' networks.
At a London Apple retail store where he announced the iPhone's November 9 UK debut, Jobs responded to a question about whether Apple would put a stop to the unlocking hacks that have mushroomed recently.
"It's a cat-and-mouse game," said Jobs. "We try to stay ahead. People will try to break in, and it's our job to stop them breaking in."
People have unveiled several unlock hacks that let users swap the iPhone's included SIM card with one from another mobile service provider so the phone can make calls on that carrier's network. With the iPhone limited to domestic sales until November, unlocking is the only way consumers living outside the US have been able to use their phones.
Last week, the iPhone Dev Team posted a free unlocking hack, then followed it with an unlocking tool tucked into a graphical interface. Just a day before the iPhone Dev Team released its free hack, a group called iPhoneSIMFree began selling an unlocking tool of its own through a network of online resellers at prices ranging from US$45 to US$99.
Carolina Milanesi, a Gartner analyst at the London presentation, said she wondered if it mattered much in the long run whether Apple stayed a step ahead of hackers, as Jobs said it must do.
"At the moment, as a consumer, you need to be very careful about unlocking the iPhone, and know how you want to use it," she said. "If you unlock it, you are not going to have a flat rate, and you will not have access to the 7,500 hot spots."
O2, the iPhone's sole carrier in the UK, will offer three flat-rate plans -- dubbed "tariffs" in Britain -- that range in price from US$70 to US$110 per month. Flat-rate plans are relatively rare in the UK, said Milanesi.
"If you unlock and then use the Internet and email, you may be surprised by your first bill," she added, referring to the pay-as-you-go data rates charged by most carriers in the country and elsewhere in Europe.
O2 has struck a deal with Wi-Fi provider The Cloud that will give iPhone users unlimited wireless access to some 7,500 hot spots in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Apple plans to release its iPod Touch, an iPod-cum-Internet device, in the UK by the end of September, so consumers will have a choice between that and the iPhone when the latter launches five weeks later.
"Now with the Touch, you have an alternative," Milanesi said. People who might have been drawn to the iPhone for its music capabilities, interface or its Web browsing features -- and might have used an unlocking hack so they could avoid paying a penalty when they ditched their current carrier -- could instead opt for the iPod Touch.
Jobs did not go into details on how Apple would bar hacks, but the process would presumably involve firmware updates to the iPhone, delivered via the iTunes software. Both of the firmware updates issued since the iPhone's US debut late June have either broken other, non-unlocking hacks, or forced users to restore the device from scratch.
IPhoneSIMFree, for instance, does not guarantee that its unlocking tool will work after future firmware updates.
Keeping unlocking hacks completely at bay, though, will probably be impossible, something Jobs tacitly acknowledged when he said that while it was a cat-and-mouse game between Apple and hackers, "I'm not sure if we are the cat or the mouse."
"Jobs said that they would stay a step ahead," said Milanesi, "but that will be easier said than done."