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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unlocking an Icon

bloomberg
There is a certain mystique associated with having an iPhone -- the few proud owners of the multifunctional device say it is sexy.

  But no one wants to invest $400 in a device, which, unless unblocked one way or another, remains a mere media player. Since its release in the U.S. market in June, Russian enthusiasts have been salivating to get their hands on the highly hyped device, despite lacking essentials such as a Cyrillic keyboard or 3G compatibility.

"Canny business people have been bringing iPhones into Russia in suitcases," said Eldar Murtazin, editor in chief of the online journal Mobile-Review Group. "At least 200 to 300 iPhones are being sold in Russia every month."

Like Apple fans everywhere, Russian iPhone owners are rebelling against the apple of their eyes, by unlocking their iPhones -- modifying them to work with local carriers -- and installing unauthorized third-party software.

Alex Shifrin, director of The Creative Factory, brought his iPhone from the United States and said he was able, with the help of software intervention, to keep all the bells and whistles.

"Unlocking the iPhone is a cinch," Shifrin said. "It's so cool. Everything works -- the GPRS, voice, e-mail, music -- no limitations."

The first port of call for unlockers is the iPhone in Russia web site, iPhones.ru, which gives detailed guidelines on just about anything that can be tuned or twisted on the iPhone.

Here, iPhone unlockers can download AnySIM 1.0.2, software that enables SIM cards from any of the major operators -- Beeline, MTS or MegaFon -- to work with iPhone.

"It's a half-hour job and no sweat," boasted Vladimir Semyonov, a system administrator with Moscow's Ipsilon-S. "It's a joke to expect me to carry around a $550 brick."

Others, like bilingual Apple fan Shifrin, use the more popular modmyiphone.com (www.modmyiphone.com/cmps_index.php), the best source of detailed instructions for iPhone users bold enough to install unlocking software.

"I am delighted everything works just like in the States, without limitations." Shifrin who uses a SIM card from Beeline, the country's No. 2 mobile operator, said being an unlocker does not make you a criminal.

For Russian unlockers of iPhone, the ride so far is good -- as long as they stay away from Apple's software upgrades, that is.


Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg News
Ever since Apple CEO Steve Jobs made good on his promise to render permanently inoperable any iPhone using unlocking software by releasing upgrade 1.1.1, loyal fans have been spewing their discontent.

But Russia's most virulent iPhone critic, Mobile-Review Group's Murtazin, said Apple's strategy was nothing short of timid effort and a masked public relations stunt. "Strictly speaking, Apple did not make the iPhones invulnerable. The company pretended to fulfill the spirit and the letter of its contract with AT&T while still leaving room for hacker's exploit in the device," Murtazin said. "This is why it is so easy to unblock."

So far, iPhone owners have shrugged off the Apple's threat essentially by avoiding the update. Murtazin called this "living in a no man's land between fact and fiction."

"Without unauthorized third-party applications, the iPhones are 'bricks' in this country," Murtazin said. "On the other hand, if enthusiasts install unlocking software, they risk losing out on important new functions and possibilities through software updates."

Tata Yermakova, an assistant producer at Yarche Production House, clings to Apple products "for their ease of use and logical structure," and said Apple tempted its loyal fans to desert by tying its iPhones to AT&T license.

"Blocking iPhones through software upgrade is simply wrong and unfair to its fans," Yermakova said.

"If I bought it, I own it," said Ipsilon-S's Semyonov. "Apple has no business gate-crashing into a private device with its software update."

Such claims are baseless, even within the confines of a country where most iPhones on sale are imported illegally, Murtazin said. "While the device becomes a personal property after purchase, the software that runs it does not."

"When you unpack the phone, you agree via contract that you will not tamper with iPhone software or disassemble the device," Murtazin said.

Russian iPhone owners remain adamant, nonetheless.

"If my iPhone is blocked by accident or a software update, I will do my best to unblock it. It will also change my opinion of Apple, even though I'm not exactly being honest with the company," Yermakova said.

Talks about handicaps and blockages may eventually decide the future of iPhone in this country. The main stumbling block is not use of illegal software, but the absence of iTunes -- a digital media player used to select and purchase a contract tariff before iPhones features may be used, Murtazin said.

He said iTunes cannot be expected for another two years and until then, the iPhone will not be popular here.

"There will be more Apple fans buying the iPhone, there will be more 'jail-break' software patches to make it usable in Russia," said mobile phone consultant Vasily Koval of J'Son & Partners.

"The iPhone is so easy to unblock and it works effortlessly with all Russian mobile networks," Koval said. "Just take a look through Yandex, at least 28 companies are vying to sell iPhones across the country. Both Vimpelcom and MegaFon are eying a distributorship with Apple."