Apple's tango with iPhone hackers echoes Microsoft's long waltz, with a twist

John Shinal · October 10, 2007 · Short URL:

iPhone w/ red X through itWord that hackers have found new ways around the locks on the latest iPhone software tells us that Steve Jobs and his developers at Apple are in the early stages of a marathon dance contest with the hacker community. 


The latest two jailbreaks, while not yet released to the public, have been tested and confirmed by the uber-geeks at tech blog engadget. The first grants users the ability to load unauthorized applications onto the device, while the other looks like it may grant full access to the file system of the iPhone and newer iTouch.


The new mischief comes two weeks after Apple released a software update that disabled iPhones which had been altered -- with a previous hack -- so they could either run third-party apps or work on mobile networks other than AT&T's, which as of now is the exclusive iPhone carrier. Read our take on that here.


The prior hack was carried out by a group of mischievous young daredevils whose public face, New Jersey teenager George Hotz, parlayed the software derring-do into 15 minutes of TV and blogosphere fame. While Hotz has now gone off to college, the hacking hangover likely will remain with Jobs and the iPod development team for years -- or until they fully open up the iPod operating system.


How well Apple does in battling the hacks will go a long way in determining just how big iPod mania can be, as well as settling an old debate in the software community. For years, loyal Apple developers contended that Macintosh software was superior to Windows because it was much less prone to hacking. This was undeniably true on the surface, given that the overwhelming majority of high-profile and damaging worms, viruses and other nasty bugs targeted Microsoft's email programs or its Web browser.


But those in the Microsoft developer camp grumbled under their breath that Windows biggest weakness was actually its own success -- because the OS had found its way into the systems and desktop of most of the world's biggest corporations, it was a high-profile target. Apple's best defense, they said, was its niche status in the PC market. After all, why would any hacker bother to make miserable the lives of academics, students, artists and designers -- who comprised the core base of Mac users -- when they could play havoc on the Fortune 500 instead?


Now, the tables are turned. While Microsoft's Zune has failed to make much of a dent in the MP3 player market, the iPod owns a Windows-like dominant share north of 70%. And with the iPhone rollout, it is Apple that is scrambling to keep up with the hackers, as it tries to ensure that the device works with, and only with, AT&T's network.


There's a further irony, though, one that illustrates the different place that Apple has in the hearts of hackers. While the many attacks on Microsoft software over the years were aimed at disabling or overloading its functionality, the early attacks on the iPhone do the opposite. They let consumers do more with the device than Apple intended, not less, while Apple itself is forced to be the great disabler.

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