A note to both Apple and iPhone customers on the v1.1.1 update

We're in a unique position here at Engadget, serving the technology community, while simultaneously interacting with and trying to make sense of the moves of the companies our readership patronizes. Apple's latest iPhone firmware, as you've probably heard, locks out third party applications, consequently preventing owners from using their device on networks other than AT&T -- so it's easy to see why this is being viewed as a hostile act, with thousands ready to storm the Cupertino castle in order to get their hacked iPhones back the pre-v1.1.1 status quo. Make no mistake about it, whether you care about the iPhone or not, this 150MB software update is uniquely controversial and causing a rift -- if not an outright adversarial relationship -- between Apple and untold thousands of its core customers, who've used Engadget comments, blogs, and any other sounding board at their disposal. So, may we have a word with both parties?

Now, we're not going to assume we could possibly be the arbiter of a discussion so complex as this, but we think there a few things both parties should remember. Let's start with the iPhone users. Note: to be clear on nomenclature, when we say a device is "bricked", we mean it's completely unusable, not just that it's been re-locked to AT&T, or had 3rd party app support disabled, ok?

iPhone users,

We know you're incensed. You paid a premium price for a powerful phone with a lot of untapped potential, and only a few weeks after the third party iPhone community got to work on a slew of surprisingly well made apps -- including the holy grail of SIM unlock software (both free and paid) -- Cupertino drops the hammer and shuts it all off in the blink of an eye, in some cases even resulting in the bricking of your device. But before you grab a torch and a pitchfork, there are a few things you should know.

Apple's first mistake in this mess was the ominous sounding announcement they released last week, a few days ahead of the update. Here's the clip from the release:

"Apple has discovered that many of the unauthorized iPhone unlocking programs available on the Internet cause irreparable damage to the iPhone's software, which will likely result in the modified iPhone becoming permanently inoperable when a future Apple-supplied iPhone software update is installed. ... Apple strongly discourages users from installing unauthorized unlocking programs on their iPhones. Users who make unauthorized modifications to the software on their iPhone violate their iPhone software license agreement and void their warranty. The permanent inability to use an iPhone due to installing unlocking software is not covered under the iPhone's warranty."

Apple's intentions here are perfectly clear and normal -- almost any electronics company out there will tell you that their customers are discouraged from hacking their devices, as it invariably voids the warranty and might be liable to cause issues in the future. And here's why this announcement was a mistake: Apple conflated the issues of SIM unlocking and/or adding 3rd party software with the anticipation of bricked devices. Basically, Apple sought to preemptively blame the 3rd party iPhone software community for any devices that their software update might brick. In the end, stating that the application of v1.1.1 to hacked phones "will likely result in ... permanently [inoperability]" ultimately makes Apple look like they're targeting thousands of iPhone modders -- which is why this press release is biting them in the ass.

There are a lot of Apple customers out there who have, indeed, had their devices bricked by v1.1.1. We can't say for sure how many, but we do know that blog authors to New York Times writers like Saul Hansell and Katie Hafner have leveled the pointing finger at Apple for targeting those adding software, in no small part due to the press release above. Apple's relationship with its customers is souring because, at the outset, many are starting to believe that the v1.1.1 is nefariously bricking hacked or modded devices; that Apple is somehow hell bent on punishing iPhone users who don't want to use the device Steve's way.

Unfortunately, we suspect the truth isn't quite such a juicy story for those looking to lay blame. We've seen just as many reports of legitimate, "factory fresh" users getting bricked iPhones as those who've just added apps, SIM unlocked their devices, or done both. In fact, besides a lot of hearsay and anger from the tech community, we've seen absolutely nothing which indicates to us that Apple is targeting users who've hacked their phones and is bricking them on update. In an informal and totally unscientific poll here on Engadget, the number of iPhone users who had never hacked their device but wound up bricked was very similar to the number of users who did hack and brick their device -- and that's even with polls showing far more voting users hacked their phones than not.

Without any correlation in bricking between hacked and unhacked iPhones, it's easy to imagine the v1.1.1 update went out without proper QA testing, and is bricking a certain number of phones indiscriminately. For further detail, we asked iPhone hacker extraordinaire Erica Sadun, of our sister blog TUAW, to weigh in. She said iPhones upgrading to v1.1.1 appear to have a completely "random distribution of bricks", implying the far simpler and likelier explanation is that the update was rushed to meet its release deadline. We know Apple promised the update would be out by September's end, and considering how much iPhone software was changed with this update, it stands to reason that Apple worked until the 11th hour just trying to finish up and push it out the door -- not testing it exhaustively for weeks before shipping to consumers.

So before you pick up any real bricks for hurling through Apple windows in a moment of frustration, consider the possibility that some potentially poor choices decisions on Apple's probably may have led to bricked devices, and the appearance might be that Cupertino is out to get you for hacking your phone. We sincerely doubt it's anything that nefarious. But totally locking down the iPhone doesn't exactly whet our whistle, either, so don't worry, we've still got an earful for Apple, too.

Ok, Apple.

Look, you've so seriously backed yourself into a corner on this one. We know you think you can't really be taking away what you never actually gave us. That we were all living on borrowed bits, so to speak, so tough luck when an update breaks something you didn't authorize -- and to a certain extent that's actually a fair stance to take. But the reality of the matter is that the consumer electronics market has changed, and consumer expectations don't just match what's on the spec sheet. We know that you've been extremely clear about what the iPhone does and doesn't do since day one, and we stand by our initial iPhone review -- we reviewed the iPhone as the device it was on the day of launch, not the device it might one day be. But we still think clamping down the iPhone is really bad news for consumers.

The first mistake that was made leading up to this whole debacle was enticing the hacker community to develop for the iPhone. Let's be fair, that's exactly what happened, you can't play innocent here. At Macworld Steve got up on stage and talked about how advanced the iPhone is running a "sophisticated" operating system like OS X, enabling the development of "REAL desktop-class applications", and "not the crippled stuff you find on most phones", only to demand the development community sandbox its functionality in mobile Safari. That's not dangling a carrot in front of the mule, that's just tempting fate.

The second mistake was loosing the iPhone in such a way that it was so easily broken into. We don't mean to trivialize the Apple's work in getting the iPhone out the door on time, or the open source community's work that went into gaining access to the iPhone and making it ripe for 3rd party development, but it was only a matter of days before iPhone hackers got root access to the device. At its core, jailbreaking an iPhone is just a matter of editing a small number of Unix files, which opens up the rest of the phone -- that's like complaining your encryption sucks when you're using ROT13. If you were so against users developing for the iPhone, you should have taken the precautions you took with the iPod touch (which is encrypted to all get out) when initially releasing the iPhone. But now you've convinced buyers of the iPhone's power to run "desktop-class applications" and then practically left the door open. This isn't a fun while it lasted kind of situation, this became the status quo. With AppTapp, 3rd party apps became so easy to install on the iPhone it was practically an undocumented feature.

The third mistake was putting out that press release, which could be construed as being intended to preemptively shift the blame of iPhone brickings to 3rd party iPhone software. There's simply no correlation between iPhone modding and bricking with v1.1.1. So far as we can tell, this fairly major iPhone update just wasn't properly tested, and it's bricking iPhones randomly and indiscriminately, killing just as many hacked devices as unhacked devices. To us this smacks a lot of the FUD we heard from Steve earlier this year, when he said, "You don't want your phone to be an open platform. ... [AT&T] doesn't want to see their West Coast network go down because some application messed up." There's obviously been no shortage of software-adding iPhone users, and yet the wireless company having trouble with uptime these days is RIM.

There has never been a question of whether you have the right to re-lock the iPhone -- that's more or less indisputable. We may own the hardware, but you own the IP, and while you can't really force us to upgrade, the free market says you can upgrade in countless ways you see fit. But with the damage done, for many users the iPhone lockdown has become a question of motive. We may never learn the true reasons why, but it seems only fair to pontificate, especially given Steve's comment in London about the iPhone becoming a cat and mouse game: "[Is Apple] the cat or mouse?"

Perhaps this is cause and effect of the SIM unlock solutions. Perhaps someone in accounting ran the numbers and figured out that Apple, which has unprecedented revenue sharing deals with its wireless carriers, will lose more money from people unlocking iPhones (which requires some level of 3rd party openness to accomplish) than it would from just selling the things outright -- therefore, in order to lock out the SIM unlock software, the only solution was to lock out ALL software. Or perhaps you're simply contractually obligated to prevent iPhone unlocks from occurring at all costs. (Knowing how much power Apple wields, though, it's hard to believe Steve wrote a blank check to ensure iPhones stay locked at all costs, including customer satisfaction.)

Or maybe it's because you intend to launch an iPhone software publishing service. Sure, why not? It's clear 3rd party apps are on the docket, we've heard way too many hints to think otherwise. And since you so closely control the hardware and software, maybe you're thinking of a more game console-like approach, like the way you sell iPod games -- offer customers only Apple-approved 3rd party iPhone software via iTunes. Developers get their apps certified, users get ease of installation and the assurance that their iPhone won't be knocking out AT&T's West Coast network (har), and Apple gets a cut of the cash. If that is indeed what you're doing, Apple, it sounds to us like you're in for a world of pain. The only thing worse than taking something away is taking it away only to offer it back for money.

Look, we, your users, are smart, and we demand more from every company we buy from. And as a consumer electronics company, you have a responsibility to your customers to continuously provide more. You can't put your Lego model in a kid's hand and throw a fit out when they make something better than you did. Like it or not, 3rd party developers found a way into the iPhone, thus fulfilling the inherent expectation that the iPhone should be an extensible platform. Whether or not you choose to publicly acknowledge it, that expectation is there, period. Sure, you can try to see this one through, but from where we sit in the middle, an inordinate number of first adoptors, smartphone user that switched to the iPhone, people that comprise your core customer base are starting to see you as villainous and money grubbing.

So why not let Steve give another a press-stopping mea culpa, giving your customers what they want (hey, maybe even throw in an SDK while you're at it?). Make developing for the iPhone as free and open as it is for every other smartphone around, and you still get to come out on top as the company that listens to its customers above all. Sure, the SIM unlock software might still be out there, but you can't fight this thing forever, the hackers will always catch up, and every wireless carrier in the world knows that. At a certain point you're expected to do the right thing for the people keeping you in business, and we think that's happening right now. Even if it is contractual obligation with the carriers that Apple must stop iPhone unlocking at all costs, isn't the buying public at least worthy of an explanation? Enough with the silent treatment, Apple. A lot of people handed over a lot of money for a cellphone, and we think it's time for some answers -- even if they're the answers we don't want to hear.

Image by Refracted Moments. Big ups to Erica at TUAW and the iPhone Dev Team.