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Unlocking Windows Phone 7: A Win For MS And What It Means For You

There’s lots of talk about ChevronWP7 and the threats that MS has laid down about it. Let’s cover a few things here 1) let’s be clear that it does not permit or enable piracy  2) it forces Microsoft to listen to what the community wants and because of that, even though they can see what phones are illegitimately unlocked, they’ll likely turn a blind eye so long as my first premises is correct and because of this 3) they will not brick your phone and 4) it actually enables some things that even dev unlocked phones lack.

OK let’s discard of this piracy thing quickly. As we noted earlier, if a XAP is downloaded from Zune/Marketplace even the dev themselves cannot sideload that application because of the security features that MS puts into the XAPs when they load them into Marketplace. So even the developer gets a message that their own XAP has an invalid signature. The secondary fear is that the code will be extracted from XAPs, then recompiled and sideloaded. That’s a real concern and Microsoft has a deal with Dotfuscator to provide devs with free obfuscation software to protect their code (no, it’s not fool proof but nothing is). Finally, the guys who are behind ChevronWP7 are developers themselves and there’s no doubt in my mind that these guys would take the same lengths to protect dev code as they have to permit sideloading of apps. Sideloading and piracy are not hand-in-hand concepts and Chevron does not enable piracy or break any MS security features regarding app security. Sideloading lets users run open source XAPs that have not been through Marketplace and the goal of the project is to get additional access to Windows Phones and to permit development and use access that MS has yet to grant to developers. So they get a head start at some tools that are likely headed their way. And that brings me to how Microsoft benefits from this.

The projects that are likely going to come out of this consists of two things 1) free programs that developers simply don’t want to pay $100 to put into Marketplace and 2) apps that utilize access that Microsoft has not granted yet. The biggie is #2 obviously. These include things like tethering, ringtone editors, USB mass storage, hardware key assignments, Wifi sharing, full file system access (with the ability to navigate and modify all folders/files) and the ability to use native code, among other things. The other related use is the ability for devs and closed communities to load applications that they do not want public (for testing purposes or to load apps within a company for example), as MS has talked about these features but still not released them. These are mostly benign projects done to fill  the gaps that MS has left open in bringing a new OS to the market. We’ve seen Microsoft respond to user demands by changing the way Facebook fills your contacts and increasing the ability of apps to continue to run under the lockscreen for example. In other words, if there’s a lot of outcry MS adds it to their list of fixes for their next release (which we’re expecting to get a major update in about 2 months so we’ll see what else we get). What these developer project represent is what the community is demanding. You wouldn’t go around and take extra steps to load third party, untested, apps unless there was some big gain. And if there is then it’s a message to Microsoft that the community is demanding it. And from there we can expect Microsoft to follow the communities lead and patch the OS. Of course, if they don’t then the unlocking community grows stronger or MS loses market as WP7 fails to keep up with consumer demand. And they don’t want either since they want to keep the OS under their control and obviously maintain the platform. So I think it’s a pretty powerful incentive. Of course, if this access is used to permit piracy or otherwise modify the security features of the OS then everything changes, but remember, that’s not what Chevron is about or what it is encouraging and hopefully that’s not where any of this is headed.

And for these reasons, I don’t think that Microsoft will ban phones that are unlocked. First off, the usual disclaimer, that this is an opinion piece and not a warranty so you’re at your own risk of course. But, anyone who reads Microsoft’s ‘threat’ about unlocking will see that it’s pretty vanilla. It’s the general boogie man type stuff that if you change your phone you’re putting it all at risk and bad mojo will happen. This is a simple technique to discourage mainstream unlocking. And they’re right to do that. It could result in performance issues (if multitasking, for example, is enabled). And MS wants to keep that under their control and in fact they’re right to do this since users will blame the OS and not their actions for the phone’s ultimate performance. But again, as long as there’s no piracy there’s no incentive for MS to ‘brick’ or restrict access to phones. Can they do it? Well the method used to unlock is likely installation of a certificate – the same one devs get when they register a phone. Of course, MS can ping phones to see what certificates they have and since those are tied to unique IDs within the phones, it’s likely that MS could detect what phones are unlocked. In fact, there were indications that they could detect what apps were installed on phones based on app licenses and that was an anti-piracy technique they were using, particularly with apps that use cloud services (since things like toasts flow through MS’s servers so they can detect if you should be receiving these based on your license). So it’s likely that they could detect what devices were unlocked but they still lack an incentive to act on that. But the technique of unlocking will not, in and of itself, brick your phone. And as long as you’re on the up and up about what you sideload, I would suspect that MS won’t care about what you have so there won’t be bricking unless you pirate apps…in which case you deserve a bricked phone.

Finally, I want to talk about one oddity that ChevronWP7 brings – more access to ‘unlockers’ than legitimate developers. As a developer you are limited to the number of sideloaded apps you can install (10). That’s pretty weak considering that if you’re a proficient developer you may not even be able to load all of your own apps. Of course, with Chevron they’ve unlocked this as well so that can load as many sideloaded apps as they desire. Again, this will likely pressure MS to increase the number of sideloaded apps that you can install. 

I should note that I have not used Chevron myself. Well there’s not a lot of apps out there  yet (there are XAPs that are open source but most are in Marketplace) but I also have a legit dev unlocked phone. But what about you? What kinds of projects do you think will come out of Chevron and what will MS’s reaction be? Will they brick phones (even if they’re not using pirated software)? Here’s your chance to go on the record about where this is all headed and in 6 months you get to say ‘I told you so’.