Tech Check

George's Summer Project: Unlocking Apple's iPhone

George Hotz

Seventeen-year-old George Hotz owns a mean soldering iron, and now he's Apple Inc. and AT&T's worst nightmare--and the source of some serious embarrassment. You see, George spent the last 500-hours of his summer vacation unlocking Apple's iPhone,the year's hottest gadget and only available to work on the AT&T network. Until now.

"I unlocked the iPhone; I made the iPhone available for use on networks other than AT&T," a happy, talkative Hotz told me during his roll-out-the-red-carpet to CNBC's headquarters earlier today.

This is a great story. Not just because it's an engineering marvel, but that it was done by the quintessential engineering geek in his bedroom, not for some nefarious way to squeeze extortion money out of two of the biggest names in tech, but simply because he's a T-Mobile customer with a T-Mobile family plan and he wanted an iPhone. And he didn't think it was fair that the phone was only available on one network.

"You can use the SIM card, you can put the SIM card in and use it with any network," says a triumphant, almost giddy Hotz.

This is a cool kid. He's well spoken, engaging, ebullient and smart. And he's clearly come up with something significant. Apple isn't commenting; AT&T is directing all calls to Apple. I mean, I don't want to glorify a hacker or Hotz' accomplishment. The kid sticks by his story that re-engineering the iPhone and "unlocking" it doesn't violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Actand he makes a compelling case since he's not trying to profit from this in any way (except he is selling one of his unlocked iPhone's on eBay and it's currently going for $2,900 at this writing.)

He says it took 500 hours to do, that it involved soldering components and re-programming software. Not an insignificant challenge and hardly something the masses will undertake. But now that we know it's possible, and that others may try to do the same thing and make it easier, young George Hotz may have stumbled across something very big indeed.

"It became, like an obsession, it became, like, I'm gonna do this and I put so much time into it," Hotz tells me.

Analysts I've talked to are still mulling the unlocking's significant. "I am not convinced that Apple is going to be all that upset because they sell more iPhones," Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group says. "AT&T is going to be pissed."

Meantime, Hotz is enjoying his newfound folk hero status and tells me he hopes to line up an internship at Google next summer. Don't hold your breath, kid: Google  CEO Eric Schmidt sits on Apple's board.

Questions?  Comments?