Should I unlock my iPhone?

July 8, 2009

Should I unlock my iPhone?There are benefits in store for those who unlock their iPhones, but there are also some potential problems. Are the benefits worth the risks? Read on to help make up your mind.

First, what is an unlocked iPhone? So far, the iPhone has been sold only on the AT&T network. The phone is sold with a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) lock in place. Theoretically, this means that the iPhone can only be used on the AT&T cellular network. Hackers, however, have found ways around this restriction and users are now able to “unlock” their phones, or to remove the SIM lock.

Unlocking iPhones in the United States is usually done because would-be users dislike switching carriers, or simply dislike AT&T. Other iPhones are unlocked because users consider AT&T’s monthly fees to be too expensive. It should be noted that over a quarter of the original iPhones sold in the U.S. were never registered with AT&T, and that the speculation is that these phones were unlocked and sold in the profitable foreign smartphone marketplace.

So, the reason iPhones are unlocked is so that they can be used on a cellular carrier networks other than AT&T. This allows a person with a current contract on another network to use their iPhone on that network without switching carriers. Alternatively, if the user feels that the rate plans from AT&T are onerous, they can unlock their iPhone and buy service elsewhere in order to save money on their monthly bill.

The rest of this article is not intended as legal or even technical advice. We just want to give you the pros and cons of unlocking your iPhone. Whether or not you do so is up to you.

Is unlocking illegal?

There is no easy answer to this, because the law is pretty complicated in the area of firmware ownership. This gets into the fine print of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or the DCMA. The firmware in the iPhone is covered by the DCMA and you have to alter that firmware in order to unlock the phone. However, the U.S. Copyright Office issued a number of exemptions to the DMCA last year. One of these exemptions allows consumers to unlock their cellphones “for the sole purpose of lawfully connecting to a wireless telephone communication network.”

So, if there were an easy answer, it would probably be “No.” As long as the user is doing the unlocking strictly to connect to another cellular network, as opposed to doing it for profit, the actual act of unlocking the phone is legal under the DCMA. It would be illegal, though, to unlock an iPhone and then to sell that phone at a profit because it had been unlocked, although such phones are offered at a premium on a number of internet sited every day.

And although it is not illegal under Federal law to unlock your iPhone, that does not mean that you could not be sued for doing so. Both AT&T have a legal right to do so because unlocking an iPhone is in violation of any agreement you may have with either company. So, remember that there is a difference between “legal” and “bulletproof from legal action.”

What if it breaks my iPhone?

Most iPhone unlockings go pretty well, and in the end the user is left with a usable, unlocked iPhone. But it is always possible that you will do irreparable damage to the phone in the attempt to unlock it. In the technical jargon, this is known as “bricking your iPhone,” which means literally turning your iPhone into an object with the value of a brick, or less.

There is always a chance that altering or replacing the firmware in an electronic device may render that device to be useless. That is even the case when you are doing it with the permission (or at the behest) of the device manufacturer, with the manufacturer’s utility. If uou ruin the device under those circumstances, you probably have some recourse. However, unlocking an iPhone is done without anyone’s permission but your own and via software written by a hacker. If you brick your phone, it’s totally on you.

How about Apple firmware upgrades?

Although it cannot be said with absolute certainty that it is dangerous to upgrade your iPhone to a new official firmware version, and then to re-jailbreak it, that process has been known to produce a LOT of bricks. First you would need to put the phone back in its original firmware condition, which is problematic. The official upgrades depend on everything being where is was, exactly, after the previous upgrade. That might not be the case with an unlocked phone.

If you unlock your phone, you may as well consider that you are stuck at whatever firmware version you owned before the unlocking. This is not categorically true. There is some chance that the upgrade process would work flawlessly in your case. There is also every chance that it would not. So, unlockers beware of official upgrades.

Do I have to jailbreak it first?

Yes. Yes you do. Jailbreaking is not the same as unlocking, but it is a prerequisite for unlocking. Jailbreaking is a process that allows iPhone and iPod Touch users to run unofficial code on their devices bypassing Apple’s official distribution mechanism, the App Store. Once jailbroken, iPhone users are able to download and run many applications unavailable through the App Store.

There are a series of pros and cons for jailbreaking, just as there are for unlocking. We previously published a post that lays out those pros and cons, and that post is available here. We also published an earlier post about exactly how you go about jailbreaking your iPhone. That post is available here. Just like with this post, our previous posts are not a recommendation to go through with it; we are just providing information.

This is a lot of information to take in, and a lot of the rules are at least a little fuzzy. The unlocking information we have outlined here, and that which is contained in our posts on jailbreaking, give most of what you need to know to decide whether or not you want to go through either process. If you do, watch this space for a new column on exactly how to go about unlocking your iPhone.

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