Technology

The Hackers' First Hello on the iPhone


With two little words—"Hello world!"—independent developers stake a claim to creating downloadable programs for Apple's device

By the standards of modern software, it wasn't much. All the program did, after all, was display the words "Hello world!"

What set it apart was the fact that it did so on Apple's (AAPL) iPhone, and that it was created by a group of independent programmers without the blessing of the famously control-freakish company.

The simple little program appears to be the first downloadable program created for the iPhone, bypassing Apple's "approved" method of developing software for the device: applications hosted on Web sites and accessed through the iPhone's Web browser rather than its internal memory (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/12/07, "Apple Reignites The Browser Wars").

Scores of browser-based applications for the iPhone appeared in the first month after its debut in late June (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/30/07, "iPhones Arrive"). These include iPhone-optimized versions of the game "Bejeweled" and Zoho.com's Web-based office productivity service.

Hacking flair

But so far, Apple hasn't released any development tools for creating dedicated software programs that reside and run on the phone itself. The less-than-convincing explanation given is that the company doesn't want mischief-making programmers to create software that might bring down AT&T's (T) wireless network (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/23/07, "Tech Beat Blog: The Price of Power: Hackers Hit the iPhone").

Despite Apple's restrictive policy, "Hello" is likely just the first fruit of the efforts by a band of programmers collaborating mostly via online chats. These developers have teamed up to create their own set of programming tools for the iPhone, led largely by Patrick Walton, a 21-year-old computer science student at the University of Chicago who goes by the online nickname "Nightwatch."

Having specialized in writing emulators—programs that allow new personal computers to act like outdated PCs so that they can run old software and classic video games—Walton brings a flair for working with the Samsung-made ARM (ARMHY) processor inside the iPhone. "One of the reasons I was so interested in getting an iPhone was that I thought it would be great for running third-party programs," he says. "And even though Apple said there would be no third-party programs, I thought hackers would eventually enable them. I just didn't think I would be one of them."

"With Spit and Bubblegum"

One key motivation: While the iPhone can send and receive cell phone text messages, it lacks an instant messaging program like AOL Instant Messenger or even Apple's own iChat. To fill that void, there are already at least two clients compatible with AIM and other IM services—JiveTalk and FlickIM —that work via the iPhone's browser.

Though its capabilities are far more primitive, building a program like Hello wasn't an easy process, says Erica Sadun, a Denver-based programmer who has written her own programs using the tools, and chronicled the project as a contributor to AOL's (TWX) The Unofficial Apple Weblog. "This project has so far gone through different stages," she says. "To say it's been put together with spit and bubblegum is an insult to spit and bubblegum."

And yet, it works. The first step involved figuring out how to gain access to the iPhone's file system. While Apple's iPod music players feature the option of acting like an external hard drive for storing files from a Macintosh or Windows-based PC (MSFT), the iPhone has no such capability, Sadun says. A program dubbed iPhoneinterface cut through the protective wall that had kept prying eyes from seeing the phone's inner files and directories.

First Words

Next came a tool called "jailbreak," which allowed them to see the files associated with the phone's Unix-derived operating system. "It was missing a lot of the Unix utilities you'd normally expect to see on a Mac," Sadun says. From there it became possible to install custom ring tones and to change the wallpaper image shown on the iPhone's display. A more recent program called iFuntastic has made that process easier. Now in its second version, it also allows iPhone owners to change the order of the icons on the home screen.

More tools followed. One instructed an iPhone connected to a Mac to run a program that displays "Hello world!" in a command line interface. Then came the "Hello" application that allowed the iPhone to display the phrase on its own.

Why this fascination with "Hello world!," by the way? It's a common first step in learning to write code in any given computer language, dating back to early programming manuals from the 1970s, Sadun says. It's also a good way to test that a set of programming tools is working and installed properly.

Next Up: Practical Apps?

And why all the effort? The basic hacker impulse: Curiosity, says Andrew Jaquith, an analyst with the Yankee Group and an iPhone user. "It's really a powerful mobile computing platform the likes of which hasn't been seen before, and a certain segment of the population is eager to play around with it," he says. "This is hacking in the purest sense, not for causing trouble or getting free service, but just tinkering around."

For Walton and Sadun, there's also the hope of building some practical applications that could in time prove useful, they say. "The iPhone has one of the most powerful processors of its kind, and it would really be a shame if we weren't able to take full advantage of it," Walton says. "There are all sorts of things it can do that at the moment we just don't have access to, like its 3D-rendering capabilities and the multi-touch screen." Moreover, Walton says, a Web-based app is useless when the phone isn't within reach of either AT&T's wireless data network or a Wi-Fi network.

There's been no official reaction from Apple, and the company didn't immediately comment on the matter when contacted by BusinessWeek.

"So far Apple doesn't seem worried about people who are doing this," says Jaquith. "But if it starts to spread and somehow eats into the revenue that AT&T is getting, they might have to take a strong stance against it."


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