Dubious achievement: Hackers ‘jailbreak’ the iPhone 3G

July 20, 2008, 11:50 AM UTC

Eight days after Apple’s new iPhone went on sale, an international team of programmers announced on Saturday that the device had been “pwned” — hacker jargon for “controlled” or “compromised.”

The loosely organized group, which calls itself the “iphone-dev team,” played an important role in the worldwide dissemination of the original iPhone, releasing a series of tools that allowed the device to run third-party software and to work in countries where Apple had not yet struck deals with local carriers. By February 2008, estimates of the number of unlocked iPhones in circulation around the world ranged from 800,000 to 1.5 million. (link)

But the value of the latest hack, dubbed Pwnage 2.0 and available for free download here, is not so clear.

For one thing, although it “jailbreaks” the new iPhone — meaning it allows it to use programs not authorized by Apple — it does not yet “unlock” it to run on unauthorized cellular networks.

Moreover, the very real needs that the iphone-dev team served in the first year of the iPhone’s release have largely dissipated.

Whereas there were almost no native third-party programs for the original iPhone, today there are hundreds available at Apple’s App Store, 25% of them free. (See here.)

And even if the iphone-dev team releases an unlock tool for the new iPhone — which it probably will soon enough — Apple (AAPL) and its partners have effectively shut down the black market for unlocked iPhone 3Gs by requiring that buyers either sign a long-term contract with a carrier or pay a prohibitively high price for the phone. The official price of an unlocked, pre-paid 16GB iPhone in Italy, for example, is 569 euros ($888).

The real value of the new tool — which can both jailbreak and unlock the original iPhone — may be for people who want to use the iPhone classic in countries with expensive calling and data plans (Canada and New Zealand come immediately to mind).

But there are risks to consider. Installing any unauthorized firmware on an iPhone voids the warranty and could “brick” the device. Even though the new jailbreak program has an easy-to-use interface and is supported by step-by-step instructions — with screen grabs — a high percentage of the user comments here and here are from iPhone owners who have run into serious problems.

Don’t be fooled by the friendly interface. Pwnage 2.0 is not for the faint of heart.

UPDATE: Erica Sadun, an iPhone developer and veteran jailbreaker, reports on TUAW that she has liberated her iPhone 3G with the new tool. “Without getting in details,” she writes, “I’d rate the new 2.0 Pwnage software as ‘for dedicated hackers only.'” (link)