The iPhone unlocking story took its next logical turn this week, with the release of a free iPhone unlocking program. Previously, unlocking required buying a commercial program or following a scary sequence of documented hardware and software tweaks.
How this happened is interesting in itself. (Caveat: This is based on the stories I’m hearing; I haven’t confirmed it all myself.) The biggest technical barrier to a software-only unlock procedure was figuring out the unlocking program, once installed on the iPhone, could modify the machine’s innermost configuration information – something that Apple’s iPhone operating system software was trying to prevent. A company called iPhoneSimFree figured out a way to do this, and used it to develop easy-to-use iPhone unlocking software, which they started selling.
Somebody bought a copy of the iPhoneSimFree software and reverse engineered it, to figure out how it could get at the iPhone’s internal configuration. The trick, once discovered, was easy to replicate, which eliminated the last remaining barrier to the development and release of free iPhone unlocking software.
It’s a commonplace in computer security that physical control over a device can almost always be leveraged to control it. (This iceberg has sunk many DRM Titanics.) This principle was the basis for iPhoneSimFree’s business model – helping users control their iPhones – but it boomeranged on them when a reverse engineer applied the same principle to iPhoneSimFree’s own product. Once the secret was out, anyone could make iPhone unlocking software, and the price of that software would inevitably be driven down to its marginal cost of zero.
Intellectual property law had little to offer iPhoneSimFree. The trick turned out to be a fact about how Apple’s software worked – not copyrightable by iPhoneSimFree, and not patentable in practice. Trade secret law didn’t help either, because trade secrets are not shielded against reverse engineering (for good reason). They could have attached a license agreement to their product, making customers promise not to reverse engineer their product, but that would not be effective either. And it might not have been the smartest thing to rely on, given that their own product was surely based on reverse engineering of the iPhone.
Now that the unlocking software is out, the ball is in Apple’s court. Will they try to cram the toothpaste back into the tube? Will they object publicly but accept that the iPhone unlocking battle is essentially over? Will they try to play another round, by modifying the iPhone software? Apple tends to be clever about these things, so their strategy, whatever it is, will have something to teach us.