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4/10/2012
10:08 AM
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How I Eventually Unlocked My AT&T iPhone

It wasn't as easy as it should have been, but my genuine AT&T iPhone is now genuinely on T-Mobile.

I'd started this about 11 am. It was now creeping up on 1 p.m., with most of the time in a pointless jaunt out to an AT&T Store; but now I thought I was really getting somewhere. I've done these steps dozens of times while troubleshooting problems and testing software. I thought it was going to be a snap.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. The backup took little time. But during the restore, iTunes said the software package wasn't compatible with my device. I figured that it might be because I'm one release behind, at 5.0.1, so I decided to upgrade to 5.1 and try again.

After an interminable download and installation process the 5.1 upgrade failed, again with an incompatibility message. Doing another restore, but choosing a different backup file, still failed.

I was going nowhere, and slowly at that.

Since nothing on the iPhone was important, I figured I'd wipe the phone—go into settings and choose to erase all settings and contents, restoring it to virginal factory condition—and try again.

Oops. The process looked like it was going OK, the phone started to reboot and suddenly there was a spinning gear where there should have been an Apple icon and a progress bar. It was now 1:30. I put the phone aside and went back to my real job, figuring that it had been ages since I had done a factory reset and maybe it took longer than I remembered.


InformationWeek's Eric Zeman asks whether it's worth it to businesses to unlock their iPhones. Click here to read what he has to say,.

At 2:30, I had to leave to visit a client. The iPhone's gear was still spinning. I considered forcing a shutdown, going into DFU mode or some of the other things that can recover from this sort of problem, but the client was about a mile away from the local Apple store. I figured if the phone was going to be bricked, I might as well let someone from Apple brick it. I logged in, set up an appointment with the folks at the Genius Bar, tucked the phone in a pocket and left for the client site.

Almost three hours later I was at the Genius Bar, phone in hand, explaining what had been done and showing the spinning gear. The phone had been like that for more than three hours and even I knew that a restore doesn't take that long.

The Apple genius forced the shutdown I had been unwilling to do and rebooted the phone. It popped back up immediately, with all the data and apps. Whatever it had been doing for the past 3 ½ hours, it hadn't been wiping itself clean.

We plugged the phone into my laptop, fired up iTunes and once again tried the upgrade to 5.1. After a not-quite-so interminable download, the 5.1 release went on flawlessly. But instead of getting the option to restore from a backup, the phone said it had to be connected to iTunes to activate. I was ready for that, and had brought my laptop and the appropriate USB cable. But it also wanted a SIM card inserted to perform the activation and the SIM card I wanted was sitting on my desk, about six miles away. Oops again.

So it was back into the car and back to the office. After I walked in, I plugged the SIM card into the phone, the phone into the computer and fired up iTunes. Within seconds, the phone was activated, on T-Mobile's network, and a text message was coming in. There hadn't even been a chance to set the phone down.

But everything was still not right. Every time the phone was plugged into the computer, iTunes popped up the registration window. But before I could click on "continue," the phone would start to sync and the window would disappear.

There being no fool like an old fool, once again I hit the "restore" button, wiping everything out. This time when it rebooted, there were options to set it up as a new phone or restore from a backup. I chose new phone and jumped through the appropriate hoops.

It's now almost twelve hours since I started this quest. All my apps, data and contacts are back on the phone.

With two minor exceptions, the phone is in the same state it was before I started this quest:

  1. It has the newer operating system on it, and
  2. I can use it on any GSM network I choose.

That said, I'll probably pick up a prepaid SIM card from AT&T just to fiddle with the phone. I run my business off an iPad, barely touching my MacBook anymore, so I don't really need an iPhone. Bento is much easier to use on the iPad, and the other apps on which I rely—notably Google Maps—are much better on my Google/Samsung Nexus S and HTC Nexus One, both of which are on T-Mobile. They function as 3G wifi hotspots when necessary and have been unlocked since Day One.

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