Red Letter Day

Sunday, April 12, 2009

iPhone Hacks book review

iPhone Hacks
by David Jurick and Adam and Damien Stolarz
O'Reilly, 459 pages, $34.99

Book cover

The iPhone is an amazing portable computer. It features capabilities that twenty years ago would have been something out of the pages of science fiction. Instant communications access with anyone in the world, the ability to seamlessly access the corpus of human knowledge that is the Internet, and of course, an ability to be entertained by music, video and games limited only by your imagination.


The iPhone, as shipped by Apple, is a wonderful device for 95% of its users. But Apple locks iPhone users into a gilded cage. The cage is sumptuously decorated, but it is still a jail cell. You are limited to using your iPhone in ways Apple approves of. "The man" (or Steve Jobs) decides what applications you can run and what capabilities your phone has. Like a bridled horse, the iPhone is docile, but unleashed, it could do so much more!

To really set the iPhone free, you need to "hack" it. Once you do this, your phone becomes the powerful computer it is meant to be, and you can run much more diverse software, giving your phone new abilities, like being able to record videos, customize the user interface, emulate popular video game consoles, and send and receive multimedia messages. You can even give your phone the ability to act as a wi-fi "access point" to the internet for your laptop, and unlock the phone to use on other carriers.

"iPhone Hacks" by David Jurick and Adam and Damien Stolarz is your guide into this brave new world. The authors act as friendly guide into the world of iPhone customization. This book is not meant for beginners; the authors assume both some technical computer knowledge and a curious nature. Some of the software-based "hacks" can be done by any experienced user, but other hacks require programming and even hardware "breadboard" skills, such as handiness with a soldering iron.

The authors first explains some of the basics of the iPhone operating system, including its history, the phone's boot process, and how the file system is put together, which is an excellent overview, before they head into the basics of "jailbreaking," which is the process where you use some simple software tools to open your phone's operating system up to customization.

I should note that many of the hacks in this book require the jailbreaking process, which, contrary to its name, is neither illegal nor very difficult. There are several hacks which do not require jailbreaking, however, these are more in the vein of "power user tips" rather then true hacks. It is worth noting that Apple will not provide warranty services to jailbroken phones - luckily, if anything goes wrong, it is very easy to "restore" your phone to pristine condition before seeking warranty service.

The actual hacks are divided into various sections by theme. The first two thirds of the book is all software-focused, and as such accessible to those without programming or hardware hacking skills. For example, there are sections on using the phone as a multimedia devices, sections on enhancing the camera and video recording functions, as well as sections on topics such as SMS messaging, gaming, and user interface customization. Any of these sections can be accessed in an ad-hoc manner; there is no need to go in order after the initial chapter on the jailbreak process itself. Simple pick the topic you are interested in and dive in. It is easy to browse the book to get an idea of what the iPhone can do, and all of the chapters are very clearly explained, with excellent use of screenshots and supplementary information to guide you in the process.

The final third of the book covers both application programming, and actual hardware hacking, including how to disassemble and reassemble your phone. Many of the hacks in this section are very entertaining to read about (and fairly useless in a practical sense), especially since it would take someone way braver then me to actually crack open my phone's case! The programming section is a useful introduction to both the official Apple-provided way to program for the iPhone as well as the unofficial ways to get access to private APIs and methods which can be used to program applications that could never make it into the App Store.

More controversially, "iPhone Hacks" also describes the process to "unlock" your iPhone (this is different then "jailbreaking") so you can use it on a carrier other then AT&T. This information is presented fairly and accurately, with both the risks and rewards clearly outlined for those users who may need to use an iPhone on another carrier. The book also describes how to activate tethering, where you can use your iPhone as an internet access point for your laptop. This may violate your contract with your carrier, but the book doesn't moralize here; it simply describes the "hack" and leaves the decision as to how to use the information up to you, the reader, which is as it should be.

Overall, this is an amazing book, clearly and thoroughly describing the dozens of ways you can truly make your iPhone your own. It manages to cover challenging information fairly and accurately in a manner that will appeal to any adventurous, curious and technically-minded reader. Even if you never plan to do anything other then the tamest "hacks" to your iPhone, browsing this book will teach you a lot about your phone as a computer, and leave you stimulated and fascinated.

Rating: 5 out of 5 DogCows
Plusses: A through and interesting book on how to expand the iPhone's universe
Minuses: None

This review was cross-posted at the Lawrence Apple Users Group web page.



  • Good stuff, Mike. I'm with you - I'm not about to crack open my iPhone. I've spent too many hours cramming everything back into my old PowerBook to think my impatience and fat fingers would be up to the task...

    By OpenID Tim Williams, At 6:08 PM  

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