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.
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.
That seems to be what's happened with Apple's recently released update to iTunes; if the update software detected anything strange about an iPhone's file system, it reformatted the iPhone and made the hackers reinstall their home-brewed applications from scratch. Apple wouldn't say last week whether the update was a reaction to the hacks and declined to make any comment about the iPhone's home-brew hacking scene.
Regardless of the risks, new underground applications keep hitting the Web at a steady pace. There's one that lets people take control of their hacked Xboxes in order to, for instance, watch movies stashed on the game console's hard drive. Other programs, like one called iFuntastic -- already in version 2.5 -- make it possible for iPhone users to pick iTunes songs as custom ringtones. Last week, an unauthorized game, called Lights Off, was released for the iPhone's operating system.
"Apple didn't give people the tools they needed to do this in the first place, so they're making their own," said Mike Schramm, who has followed the iPhone hacking community for the Unofficial Apple Weblog ( http://www.tuaw.com).
Hardware manufacturers are usually not happy about such user-created innovations because they can lead to piracy. Why buy a game or a software application if you can download one free?
That's why just about every time somebody figures out how to hack Sony's mobile gaming device, the PlayStation Portable, the company releases a new version of the operating system that you have to install if you want to play the latest games. Each new version of the software blocks off vulnerabilities exploited by hackers in previous versions.
It's impossible to know how many people are hacking into their PSPs or their iPhones, but it looks as if there's an audience out there. Earlier this summer, an old and relatively obscure PSP game called Lumines suddenly shot up the sales charts at Amazon. The sales spike happened just after hackers discovered a way to exploit the game's coding in order to play home-brew software on the device. At eBay, sellers unloading their copies of the game are touting it as the one that lets users hack their PSPs.
Funny thing, though. As much as corporations officially disapprove of this sort of work, the people who are fanatical enough about their technology to pull these tricks off are sometimes the ones who end up getting the cool jobs.
In some forums at the Guitar Hero fan site ScoreHero, fans figured out how to hack into the game's software and insert their own music selections into the popular guitar game. At last count, three of the programmers from that scene have been hired to develop the next version of the game, due out this holiday season.