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Introducing The New and Improved iPhone -- by Hackers

Guitar Hero can play music chosen by the user.
Guitar Hero can play music chosen by the user. (Playstation 2)

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By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, August 19, 2007

Well, that was quick. The hacker community has taken over the iPhone. Heck, in some cases, hackers are already releasing updated versions of their underground software.

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Apple's new flashy and pricey smartphone, released to much fanfare at the end of June, has a nice array of features straight out of the box. But do a little unauthorized tinkering on the thing, and it can do a few more tricks, ranging from the frivolous to the useful.

Last month, for example, Silicon Valley-based software consultant Stephen White posted software that lets people play classic Nintendo games, such as the Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros., on the device.

"I was sitting in a pub with a friend one night musing about what the iPhone needed," he said. "I decided that every device I own needs to have Mario on it."

After investing about a dozen hours of work, White made his results available online. Now, for his second iPhone project, he's fine-tuning the controls on a version of the classic shooter game Doom for Apple's new phone. When I talked to him last week, he had just found out how to access the phone's "vibrate" function, which he hopes to incorporate into this or future iPhone applications.

This is White's idea of a good time. Before the iPhone came along, he spent his time tinkering away at iTunes and his TiVo. He says the day he bought his new smartphone was the happiest of his life -- though that's partly because he was sick of his Treo.

White is just one member of a new and very active community of iPhone hackers. Another group of programmers worked up a Web-based video-conferencing tool that uses the iPhone's built-in camera lens. One programmer, who is already working on a book on how to push the iPhone to its limits, has developed a program to make the device record voice memos.

Hackers based in Europe claim to have already figured out how to make the device work there. Apple isn't scheduled to make the iPhone available there until later this year.

Since you're probably wondering: No, Apple has not given this community its blessing, and the company did not open this device up for the software tinkerers of the world. The Apple smartphone is on what techies call a "closed" system -- meaning that users are supposed to be able to install only software that has been approved and distributed by Apple.

The work that Mac programmers and hobbyists are doing here relies on a new class of underground applications designed for the iPhone called "jailbreak" programs. These unlock the file system and give brave users access to parts of the phone's inner workings that Apple went through some trouble to rope off.

Let the tinkerer beware, though: It's not an area for the squeamish. The risk involved in this kind of activity generally includes voiding your gadget's warranty and turning the device into a useless chunk of metal, silicon and scratch-resistant glass.

If the history of consumer electronics is any guide, this will probably turn into a cat-and-mouse game between Apple and the hackers.


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