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Spillikins #88. Phone firmware and hacking: Apple, HTC, Blackberry and others
I don’t know how your week was, but my was all about flying back and forth, about meetings, both scheduled and unexpected, and about new discoveries and information flows that sometimes threatened to overload me. Not every week is like that, but this particular one turned out to be excellent. All the news is tasty, interesting, and being a gourmet, I don’t even know what to begin with. Let’s talk about data security, phone firmware upgrades and what particular companies think of that. But before we do that, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that an official Skype client for Android is now available; the program has been a source of positive emotions for the whole week for me, and you can learn more about it in Artem’s detailed review.
Over the weekend, someone under the nickname GeoHot released a utility that exploits a breach in the processor code to jailbreak the Apple iPhone 4. In theory, it implies that Apple will not be able to do anything about that. The utility can also hack the iPad, iPod Touch 3G/4G, as well as the iPhone 3Gs. Is it about time to sound the alarm and declare that Apple is in big trouble? I think it is too early for that, since the company’s business model is so robust that hacking the very first firmware versions of the iPhone wasn’t even possible without their actual approval. The odds of some teenagers having hacked the iPhone is similar to one’s odds of manually assembling a spaceship, flying to Alpha Centauri and coming back with a truck full of sweets. Yet most people believed that a fair-haired boy had cracked the encrypted firmware code on his home computer over one night. That is a fantastic story, taking into account the fact that a similar encryption algorithm is being used by Pentagon and U.S. governmental institutions. And despite many willing to pay for the information the latter have, nobody has cracked that code so far.
What did then Apple need it for? The answer is in their business model. Half of the price of the first iPhone was subsidized and it was offered in the U.S. only. To increase the sales volumes, they needed to make the device available outside the country, which was impossible due to the earlier agreement with AT&T. And they came up with a smart idea that made it possible to use the device virtually anywhere (actually buying it in the U.S. wasn’t difficult). The initial method of creating a SIM card that would talk to one’s local operator and pretend it were AT&T was ingenious but inappropriate for many users. The mass market demanded the ability to work with any SIM card, and that is how the jailbreaking era began. And it began right at the moment when the sales started to decline, which can’t be a coincidence. The firmware encryption code leak was an authorized operation and played into the company’s hands.
What is different today? Since 2008, the number of iPhones has increased throughout the world, but still there is no such country where the device can be bought at a fairly low price and without any hassle. That’s the story, and it is not at all the mass market that we are talking about, as its main feature – i.e. the low price – is not present. The availability of hacking utilities does not bother Apple as it hardly damages the interests of the company. They are selling the device at the price they want. Those hacking the products are doing that at their own risk, and the company is not responsible for the consequences. For geeks, the product appears as one having some extra features, which is beneficial for Apple again.
HTC has been fighting unofficial firmware for its devices for a long time. Within the recent six months, several creators of such firmware as well as some resources that discuss and promote them received notifications from the company about infringing its rights. As an example, the users had to wait for the official HTC Hero upgrade from version 1.6 to version 2.1 for almost a year, whereas some unofficial firmware became available much sooner. And that did annoy the company as well as those users who wanted to get the upgrade but didn’t want to bother with flashing unofficial firmware. The face-off has moved to a brand new level now, as starting with the Desire Z and Desire HD, all HTC devices will be equipped with a separate chip to control the firmware integrity and authenticity. For instance, one of the most popular hacking methods is replacing not the whole firmware but only some portion of it. With the hardware security system on board, the trick won’t work as the initial firmware image will be restored discarding all changes made. That is true if the new firmware does not have the official signature, which the geek band is not getting their hands on. By the way, this is exactly what reminded me of the story with Apple, when the corresponding signatures were freely available on the Web and taken for granted. Be that as it may, such signatures are among closely guarded secrets in any company and they cannot be just found somewhere. Neither can they be cracked. I would like to remind you that a year is gone but nobody managed to crack the boot loader on Motorola Android devices. All the models come with the same loader, but it hasn’t been cracked or compromised in any way so far. That is an indicator of such protection doing its job.
In the HTC case, the presence of hardware protection is a necessity as the company is eager to protect its products from unauthorized modification. By buying a cheap phone and flashing some modified firmware or that from a senior model, the user can gain a lot. In the meantime, the company, having invested money into the development of the original firmware, will lose. Effectively, I’m saying that the future models are going to have significant software differences and the company is going to protect those (think of the HTC Sense evolution).
I tend to get sad at how people take the news. Many oppose the very idea of restricting anything and don’t choose their words carefully in this particular case. The most ridiculous statement I have come across is that HTC is threatening the freedom of Android. I don’t feel like joining such discussions but will say that “Android being free” is no less of a myth.
The news leaves the regular ordinary user in me neither hot nor cold. If they want to have such hardware protection – I don’t care. In the future, it will obviously be used as a means against viruses or other malicious software. It is bad news for some insignificant user minority. There are no restrictions being imposed on the users themselves, though. The ability to modify devices with unofficial firmware is not a marketed feature, is it?
In the past, the development of the offense and defense went in a spiral. I remember Motorola trying to introduce a special chip that would block phones if their IMEI is tempered with in the early 2000s. It was an attempt to fight the stealing of carrier phones and their going to other markets. Being the largest supplier of inexpensive devices, the American company was the one who suffered the most. However, it was not about the hardware but rather about the presence of a cheap supply. With the latter gone, there was no need for a special chip anymore, and so it never made it to the mass market.
I have a friend who prides himself on the data security inside his Blackberry. Imagine he can even leave it on a table unattended. He believes nobody can hack this device, which gives him a piece of mind and inner balance. Unfortunately, this approach one day will make him learn about safety measures the rough way. A special device can get all user info from an ordinary phone in ten minutes without switching it on. If you take only SMS you will need several minutes. Such devices do not exist for Blackberry, but the first crack in its position has been already made. Russian software company ElcomSoft boosted the features of its Phone Password Breaker utility, which can now hack archives with user data on Apple and Blackberry devices. You only need to get the encrypted archive.
ElcomSoft has been present in the market for years and in 2001 they won a court case against Adobe, which accused its founder Aleksandr Katalov of hacking one of its protected applications. Upon arrival to the USA the head of ElcomSoft was arrested, but the case was eventually won by the Russian company. Now for around €200 you can open encrypted Blackberry archives, which is quite original.
I do not think this news will spread quickly around the world as devices security is the top priority for RIM. I would like to see how quickly the encoding algorithm in Blackberry handsets will be changed. I think Apple will not rush in.
I would like to emphasize once again, that you cannot be too secure. The weakest link in any security system is a human being. If you leave your gadgets everywhere and rely just on hardware you increase the chances of ill-wishers and give them weapons against you. Do you really want it?
I have a feeling that we have to start a column to bridge information gaps by merely copying and pasting key headlines without getting into much detail. Nielsen Research Company carried out a survey of US customers. They did not analyze the number of sold phones, but just asked users. According to the respondents they started buying Android devices more often. Sales figures prove that.
The second diagram provides a breakdown by OS, but again only the respondents were taken into account. Probably, the results genuinely reflect the sentiment in the US, but remember these companies often neglect the established methods, so I am a bit skeptical (Nielsen can be trusted, but the methods used are approximate). It is now an anecdote when the survey is conducted on a metro train and one of the questions is “Do you use metro?” Surprisingly, but many people surveyed say “No”.
I wrote that Samsung plans to stop the production of Wave and Galaxy S (non carriers’ version of the latter) and the company implicitly confirmed the idea. This week saw a couple of important events. For example, Samsung reported that it managed to sell around 5 million of Galaxy S worldwide. As I know the Korean manufacturer planned to sell 6 million devices until the end of this year. Samsung is likely to surpass the estimated figure by almost 100%, which is excellent for the product in this price range.
Rumors that Wave will be soon replaced led to many questions among our readers. Does it signal the end of Bada development? Don’t worry! The platform will be developed as before and it is not under threat. This week another Bada based model Wave 575 (S5750) was announced. It is only a 3G version of previous models with undistinguished characteristics – WQVGA screen, 3.2 MP camera and WiFi support, which is a typical Samsung solution.
At the same time Wave II (S8530) now has a large 3.7 ″ screen (Super Clear TFT instead of SuperAMOLED). This is a new type of screen used in Wave II for the first time. I have only positive impressions and this display is on par with SuperAmoled indoors (apart from slightly worse viewing angles), but loses out to Wave in the sun. To my mind the responsiveness is a bit inferior to Wave, but it is very subjective and we need better samples to judge than mine.
The phone features Bada 1.2 upgrade, but it does not offer many changes. Preinstalled apps were updated and the stability improved as well.
I am curious why give the model such a name, because we already have Wave 2 (S5250). Unless you see it in writing there is no difference between them. I have no explanation and it really confuses customers. The model will go on sale in November for around €400 (without subsidies). It is more than the initial price of Wave, but it is logical as the original model is still on the market.
Over the week I read several interesting articles and would like to share my impressions.
Knock, Knock, Nokia's Heavy Fall...
The Finnish newspaper gives a detailed inside account of difficulties facing Nokia. Feedback from people who used to work in the company clearly describes the atmosphere in Nokia. A 4 part story explains why current developments at Nokia are naturally determined. This is a must read for everybody who watches the market. Everything is logical, but the insight from rank and file employees is very important.
Nokia: pro and contra
Anton Nekhayenko tried to analyze the rationale behind Nokia troubles from the developers’ perspective. I liked the article not for its attitudes, but facts. I expected more from Anton as some points were not covered thoroughly enough. For example, he mentioned that at the time of publication OVI Store had 15,000 applications. Sadly, among 15,000 items we get many logos, pictures, ringtones and videos. Applications take up no more than 30% or 5000 items. There is also not enough of feedback why developers find it unprofitable to program for Symbian. Within a minute I found a dozen of public statements from respected companies. The article is nonetheless worth reading.
Microsoft vs Motorola. What exactly Moto is getting sued for? And what does it mean for Android?
The article details every patent, which is the center of Microsoft claim to Motorola. Besides, the reason for such claims is discussed and I largely agree with the explanations. I can recommend this reading if you want to know what will happen to Google Android. If you don’t know how they are connected you will find the answer in the article.
Did you read anything interesting? Share a link with me or everybody on our forum, twitter (@eldarmurtazin) or any other way. Thank you in advance.
Do you want to talk about this? Please, go to our Forum and let your opinion to be known to the author and everybody else.
Published 12 October 2010
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