17-year-old makes iPhone available by more carriers

HACKENSACK, N.J. – George Hotz – pale, skinny, shaggy-haired and brilliant – claims he’s won the worldwide race to unlock an Apple iPhone so it can be used with a carrier other than AT’T.

The 17-year-old Glen Rock, N.J., resident posted the complicated steps on his blog Thursday.

An avid tinkerer who goes by the online name Geohot, Hotz showed off two iPhones that he’d unlocked, both of which can make and receive calls using T-Mobile’s network.

The iPhone is designed to work exclusively on AT’T’s network and lock like other cell phones to prevent its use on another network.

But ever since the phone’s splashy debut in June, computer hackers around the world have been in an unofficial race to break open the device and modify it so it can work with other carriers. Hotz said his unlocked phone retains all the bells and whistles of the iPhone except for a visual voicemail function exclusive to AT’T.

“I’ve lived and breathed that phone for the last two months,” said Hotz, who won a prestigious $20,000 Intel science fair prize this year for a device that projects a 3-D image.

Hotz said he is aware of other so-called “unlocks”, but that his is the first that lets the phone work with a SIM card from any carrier without purchasing additional parts to make the unlocked phone operate.

The SIM card is the tiny rectangular card that fits into a phone and contains phone number and account information. In the U.S., phones sold by AT’T and T-Mobile use SIM cards; Verizon Wireless and Sprint use a different technology, so Hotz’s fix wouldn’t work.

Hotz doesn’t tinker alone. He’s got a Web-based group dubbed Dev Wiki, which includes one programmer based in Russia. Hotz, whose room has shelves of empty Red Bull cans, must be up at 5 a.m. to communicate online with him.

On the technology blog Engadget, Hotz’s work was hailed Thursday. But some found the soldering steps involved too complicated.

“As excited as I am for this event, that level of soldering and what is at stake is too steep a price. This is not the hack for me yet. But, I am super proud of that crew,” a reader called Dentalchicken posted.

Hotz recently put a video touting his unlock on YouTube, which had more than 107,000 views as of Thursday night.

Neither AT’T nor T-Mobile would comment on Hotz’s claim. Apple could not be reached for comment.

It’s too early to tell whether unlocking the iPhone could have any impact on Apple.

“If a large enough number of people can figure it out then clearly that’s disruptive – that would become a major concern to both Apple and AT’T,” said Kurt Scherf, principal analyst at technology consultancy Parks Associates. “Hacks are going to happen, but I would think this would be a very small portion of the overall iPhone base.”

Hotz’s level of expertise in electrical engineering is impressive. His room is filled with lathes, soldering irons and prior projects – a flying wing, a toaster oven converted to a reflow oven, which can perform precision soldering jobs – and out back he took apart a car (which his father, also George Hotz, gently reminded him he hasn’t put back together).

Hotz took on the iPhone project the minute the phone came out, and estimates he spent about 500 hours working on it.

“Some of my friends think I wasted my summer but I think it was worth it,” said the teen, who is off to Rochester Institute of Technology this weekend, where he plans to major in neuroscience – “hacking the brain!” he said.

If someone handed him an iPhone new out of the box, he could modify it in “about an hour,” he said. A person following his directions might take “a good 12 hours,” the teen estimated.

Hotz, who has met legendary hackers Kevin Mitnick and John T. Draper, doesn’t believe in doing malicious work. He said he was motivated to crack the iPhone simply for fun. And, he acknowledged, because his parents had a T-Mobile family plan and wouldn’t pay for AT’T iPhone service.

He says the work he did isn’t illegal. He said the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 allows phones to be unlocked.