Rhodri Marsden: Hack your phone and you could pay the price

Cyberclinic
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The Independent Tech

Once we've bought something from a shop, we can generally do what we like with it. If we decide to use white vinegar to descale a kettle rather than sprinkle it on chips, Sarson's is unlikely to issue a press release complaining. Nor were there urgent product recalls when models started using haemorrhoid cream to reduce the appearance of wrinkles around the eyes. But some technology companies become desperately unhappy about the wilful repurposing of their products, particularly if it's a smartphone. And they'll build in substantial barriers to stop us doing it.

"We're ensuring a seamless customer experience" is the kind of excuse that's given for erecting these walled gardens, as they're known, but the real reasons are generally commercial – encouraging us to make further purchases or to protect agreements with other companies. To the rescue, however, comes the jailbreak. Millions have used software freely available online to get under the bonnet of various devices, and coax them to do things that are forbidden by the manufacturers. One common aim is to enable tethering, where your phone's 3G internet connection can be used by a computer. And in the US, huge numbers of iPhones are jailbroken in order to get them operating on a network other than AT&T (to which all new iPhones are SIM-locked).

This summer saw the US Library of Congress rule that jailbreaking isn't illegal; the status in the EU is unclear, but experts deem it unlikely that it would ever be prosecuted. Shortly after the ruling a website called Jailbreak Me was launched, offering a trouble-free iPhone jailbreak in a single click – and suddenly you could install non Apple-approved apps that would let you use your phone as, say, a mobile hot spot, or to download YouTube videos. Marvellous, right?

Well, not entirely. The efforts of these hackers are pretty extraordinary, but they're not flawless; jailbroken devices might lose some important features, and apps that haven't gone through an official vetting process might be prone to crashing, or leave the door open to viruses. And then there's the more obvious point that it invalidates your warranty; if jailbreaking has left your device malfunctioning, not much sympathy will be coming your way. With the high cost of replacing a smartphone, even diehard geeks have questioned the value of jailbreaking.

But then there's the new Apple TV. A snip at £99, it's a nice enough toy, allowing you to stream music and certain kinds of video from a computer running iTunes to your television. But jailbroken, it suddenly becomes an incredibly powerful media hub – which it falls short of at the moment because of those aforementioned commercial considerations. Install an app like Plex on a jailbroken Apple TV, and suddenly a library of your ripped DVDs can be available to watch in a popup menu; in addition, BBC iPlayer and 4OD stream direct to your television, along with a large selection of free content. Jailbreaking an Apple TV running the latest software is a complex procedure, and I wouldn't recommend it – not least because of the warranty issue. But there's no doubt that the unlocked potential of the cheap, cheerful Apple TV will have both hackers and consumers alike salivating slightly in 2011.

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Many London pubs were shut on Sunday evening, and who could blame them, it was the holidays after all. While looking for alternative options for meeting up with a friend, I scanned user reviews on beerinthevening.com, ranging from withering to downright rude, and thought "who'd run a pub?" I found myself discounting certain boozers purely because some random person had mouthed off about it 18 months ago – and therein lies the power of the online complaint. Through lack of resources, pubs probably won't follow the example of Systemgraph, a Greek computer maintenance company which, according to a post by one Dimitris Papadimitriadis, failed to repair the screen of his laptop properly, and subsequently refused him a refund. Unhappy with his online appraisal, the company is suing him for €200,000, and a court hearing is due on 19 January. Horror at this disproportionate response has seen the so-called "Streisand Effect" swing into action, with far more people aware of the company's alleged shortcomings than there were before. Maybe pubs have got it right; if someone badmouths you, cross your fingers and hope no one sees it.

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