Two months later, he had successfully hacked the phone to work on T-Mobile in spite of the best efforts of Apple and exclusive carrier AT&T to keep the handset locked to AT&T's network.
After the 17-year-old posted detailed instructions of the feat on his blog, the media came calling and hackers declared him a hero. When Apple updated the phone's software last winter to tether phones back to AT&T, Hotz cracked the code again.
Fast-forward a few months: Hotz is gainfully employed at Google, on leave from the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he was studying biotechnology. While he pronounces his hacking days are behind him, he still uses that first unlocked iPhone.
Visitors from around the world continue to frequent his blog, seeking technical help and urging him to unlock the iPhone 3G, 'just for the challenge'.
Forbes.com talked to Hotz about his take on the new iPhone, whether or not he plans on hacking it, and what he's doing at Google.
Forbes.com: What's your opinion of the iPhone 3G?
Hotz: In a lot of ways, it's a step backward from the original iPhone. I should be able to buy service from AT&T and a phone from Motorola, Apple [or] whomever I choose. That's the beauty of a SIM card--you can pop it into any phone.
Think about buying a TV. You get the service separate. Cablevision doesn't try to sell you a TV. With cars, you can do a down payment and pay a bit per month, but you can also buy the car in full. The iPhone doesn't give you that option. In Europe, it's a lot more straightforward.
So that's your take on the business model, but what's your impression of the phone?
I wonder what Apple was doing for a year. I know they added a GPS chip, 3G support, designed a new case. But it's the same ARM11 Samsung chip, not the Intel Atom, like people wanted. And it still uses the same CPU and software.
In some aspects, that's nice, because everything will work with older iPhones. Still, they could have put in a front-facing camera, the ability for video conferencing. Apple could have done everything everyone wants. But that's probably what's going to be in the next iPhone. They have to ration out the features.
The new iPhone's hardware also looks more like that in other cellphones. The first iPhone didn't. If you open up phones like the Samsung BlackJack or a Motorola phone, they look like they were laid out by cellphone engineers. They look cheap. If you open up the [first] iPhone, it looks like a PDA, like computer engineers worked on it. But the new phone is moving away from that.
How can you tell? Do you have an iPhone 3G?
No, no one sent one to me, but I have the firmware files. I can look through and see what the parts are.
Does that mean you won't be upgrading?
I can't buy one. I don't want to pay $70 a month. And it won't even work on T-Mobile's 3G network, because it uses different [frequency] bands. I figured out you can get an unlocked iPhone with all that stuff for $480 [$200 for the phone, $35 for the activation fee, $175 for the contract early-termination fee, $70 for the first month of service], but it's a hassle. You'd have to call to terminate the service, probably argue with people for an hour.
What's your take on the App Store? People are calling it a game-changer.
Apple controls whether you're allowed to be a developer. If they don't like what you're doing, they can take away your certificate and say your apps won't go on anyone's phones. I don't like control. There's cool stuff on there, though. I was playing [Sega's iPhone game] 'Super Monkey Ball' this morning. The existence of the App Store brings a certain level of legitimacy. Companies are involved that have resources. It's not just guys in their basements working on it.
That seems like a strange statement from someone who used to work in his bedroom.
Exactly. I can't write quality apps. My earlier ones were hacks. My attitude was, "If it helps you out, good. If not, it's not my problem. Don't call or e-mail me for tech support." I assumed a certain level of knowledge.
So you won't be writing any applications for the App Store?
I bought a nice Mac Pro to play with the Apple development environment. But I'm not a software developer. I'm more interested in the internals. I never much liked polishing my code and making it pretty. And would Apple really give me a developer's key? "Hi, my name's George Hotz" … probably not.
Will you try to unlock the new iPhone?
When I did the first one, I had just graduated from high school. The only thing on my agenda was partying. Now I work at Google, I go in from 9 am to 5 am and am tired by the time I get home. I don't have the same kind of time or the same drive. The [first] iPhone was a huge launch, an entirely new environment to play around in. That's not the case this time.
One thing does interest me about the new iPhone. I haven't seen the amplifier chip yet. If it's an S-Gold 3 [from iPhone chip maker Infineon], it's possible that by changing sections of the firmware, the phone would work on Verizon. The EDGE chip set wasn't flexible enough, but the S-Gold 3 chip set supports both GSM [the cellular technology AT&T uses] and CDMA [that which Verizon uses].
What are you doing at Google?
I'm an intern on Google's Street View team. We drive around and take street-level pictures. I probably shouldn't say anything else. I've been there since April. I'm taking a break from school.
Are you tired of the iPhone and being associated with it?
I am sort of sick of it. I haven't really touched the iPhone since February. But I know a lot about it and feel it's a waste if I don't do anything on the new one.
So you will be working on the new iPhone?
I bought a URL, yiphone.org, and put a Web page up. If the community doesn't come through with an easy solution for the iPhone 3G, keep your eye on yiphone.org.
Do you ever worry that your work will get you in trouble legally?
Nope. Companies don't sue kids in their basements. It wouldn't justify your legal fees even if you took everything I own.
What else are you working on? You have a project you call a universal radio.
Within five years, I believe we will have a universal device the size of a cellphone that can do everything. So many things are in radio spectrum already, TV, traditional radio, car systems like OnStar, garage-door openers, Bluetooth, wi-fi, cellular technology, GPS. I think they could all be in one universal chip with very fast links between the technologies. Why should I carry a Google work badge around? You should just have an RFID transmitter in your cellphone that you can wave by the door.
You could build it now, but the power consumption is high, the software isn't clean enough, the processors aren't fast enough yet.
Would that be a business venture? So far, you've given away your work for free.