Archive for March, 2009

Escape from Alcatraz

prison-escapeIn a recent Wall Street Journal there was an interesting article on jailbreaking iPhones.  It seems many people–more than I originally thought–may be using software to “break” the restrictions on an iPhone, allowing the installation of applications that have not been purchased through the App Store, or certified by Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL).

The article quoted Jay Freeman, developer of Cydia, as saying 1.7M have downloaded it–implying a like number of jailbroken iPhones.  Even if he’s exaggerating, it’s probably fair to say the total worldwide number of jailbroken iPhones could be in the millions now.

In terms of sheer volume, this doesn’t present much of a threat to App Store revenue.  Though certainly the availability of applications that are not blessed by closed Apple ecosystem will appeal to many.

apple-iphone-firmware-20-jailbreakAwhile back, I suggested that the most widespread app for the iPhone in 2009 would be a virus.  Subsequently, I was roundly flamed by the ever-sensitive Apple fanboys, who claimed that the App Store system is practically (if not completely) virus-proof.

Above all, there’s the dreaded “Kill Switch”, which lets Apple disable an application on every iPhone in the world, once its discovered to be malicious or defective in a way that allows the spread of a virus.

[The presence of that kill switch has become a lightning rod for those critical of the amount of control Apple has retained over its ecosystem.  Google’s (NASDAQ: GOOG) Android OS for mobile phones promises a great deal of freedom and diversity.  Apple provides a more limited functionality, but users get stability,  increased virus security, and a world-class user experience.  The liberty vs. security trade-off seems universal.]

I’ll admit to a bit of hyperbole in my original post.  And I certainly got more of an education in iPhone security than I ever wanted.  So perhaps a virus won’t be the MOST downloaded app.  Or happen this year.  But I stand by my original sentiment.

Imagine the following:  One day, some unexpected data finds its way into your computer.  Some time later, tens or even hundreds of copies of the data leave your machine and end up on the hard drives of other people’s PCs.  And the process repeats until hundreds of thousands of computers have been infiltrated by copies of this data.

A virus, you say?  No, just a joke email.  But I think you get my point.


The problem with those who defend Apple is they have far too limited a definition of a virus.  No one says it has to be malicious, or take control of your hardware.  Hackers are first and foremost pranksters, who often spread mayhem but are also driven by the challenge–seeking recognition in their own way and in their own circles.

And people make mistakes.  That includes both the developers of legitimate iPhone applications, as well as Apple itself.  Perhaps an innocent error could sneak through the certification process and be exploited by a creative youth with time on his hands.  It needn’t be a malicious attack that takes over peoples’ iPhones.

On the other hand, imagine if you could claim bragging rights by forcing Steve Jobs to actually use that kill switch, disabling a popular application on every iPhone in the world.

That would make a hell of a “virus”, wouldn’t it?

Disclosure: I hold no position, either long or short, in any stocks mentioned here.

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March 16, 2009 at 9:47 am 2 comments

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