Salvage Techniques for Wet Electronics

An edited version of this column was originally published in The Chicago Sun-Times.

It’s all those little bits of good luck that eventually bite you in the butt. You hit nothing but green lights all the way from your house to the post office. The candy machine in the breakroom gives you twice as many Zagnut bars as you paid for. Not ten minutes after you learn of the existence of the awesome vintage California Originals ceramic Chewbacca tankard, you spot a fresh listing for it on eBay for a laughably-low Buy It Now price.

Life is good. Until Karma goes through its receipts and is alarmed by all of this deficit spending. That’s when you find yourself looking down into a toilet bowl and thinking to yourself “That’s really a terrible place for a $400 smartphone to be.”

No sense beating yourself up over it. Really. But if the events of the preceding 30 seconds are any indication, you certainly don’t have any good luck coming to you. So if you want to avoid having to buy a brand new phone (or iPod, or camera, or…), you need to choose your next actions carefully.

Over the years, I’ve come across loads of urban legends about how to rescue wet electronics, but I’ve never come across anyone who’s actually used any of these techniques successfully. So I made a call to the good folks at T-Mobile, who sent over a half-dozen identical new phones. They aren’t iPhones by any stretch, but these Samsung handsets are thoroughly modern devices with color screens and Internet and multimedia features.

And then I proceeded to do awful things to each of them. Starting with loading them up in a pair of cargo shorts and running through the washing machine for a full cycle.

(As an internationally-beloved technology columnist, I’m well-paid. But if I’m going to spend a day working with Toilet Phones, I’m going to have to get Mossberg bucks.)

Before I get into the techniques and how well they worked, there are a few basics. First, you need to get the device out of the wet as soon as possible. Most personal electronics are designed to put up with some moisture and it’s possible that a quick hand will pull your iPod Nano out of that puddle before Murphy’s Law is even aware that it fell out of your arm case.

Secondly: do not, do not, do not power up the device until it’s bone-dry. Pull the battery immediately if you can. As often as not, damage only occurs when the electrons inside your battery are free to choose their own path through the device’s delicate circuitry, instead of sticking to the safe trails that have been laid down by the manufacturer.

You should also disassemble the phone as far as you can: keep the battery cover off, remove the SIM card and all memory cards…you might even choose to remove screws and get your device naked.

Yes, that voids your warranty. But your device has been pretty thoroughly voided as it is. Besides, if it’s a phone, that ship has already sailed: there’s a white paper dot inside the device that turned red upon exposure to moisture. It’s insurance against customers coming back to the store with a phone that reeks of mackerel, and insisting “I dunno…it just stopped working all of a sudden.”

Finally, you want to make sure that moisture is your only problem. If you’ve dropped it in…let’s just say “something other than clean water,” you’ll have to throw caution to the wind and give it a rinse in the clean stuff. Distilled water if possible, bottled or tap water if that’s the only source of hydrogen and oxygen atoms available.

It’s particularly important if your precious has landed in salt water. Salt water is to electronics as holy water is to a vampire. It causes immediate corrosion and you need to address that as soon as possible. After fishing an iPod from the surf I’d think nothing of sloshing it around the leftover water in my ice chest for a minute or two. It’s probably dead already; this way, at least there’s a marginal chance of salvation.

Okay. Enough…let’s abuse some hardware.

First Test: Do nothing.

The first phone was set aside as a control group. I just left it out and let it dry. No muss. No fuss. No success.

Well, all right: it powered back up and the screen worked and you could make and answer calls. But the keypad was messed up and you could only call it a useful phone if you don’t know anybody with a 3, 4, 7 or 9 in their phone numbers or a…look, why don’t you work out which letters of the alphabet you lose when those keys are disabled.

Second Test: Run it through the dishwasher.

And that would certainly seem counter-productive, wouldn’t it? Unless of course you wanted to make sure that you’d truly driven a stake through the heart of your old Treo so that your boss okays the purchase of a new Blackberry or iPhone.

Okay, but what if you just ran the machine on the “dry” cycle? If it can leave my “Space: 1999” Thermos bone-dry, it ought to do the same trick for a phone.

Result: Another mixed bag. The phone lit up, but you couldn’t call it a working thing.

Third Test: Bury it in rice.
The next one was buried in dry white rice and left to contemplate its lot in life for a full 24 hours. The hope here is that the rice will act as a natural desiccant, drawing the moisture out of the device.

Result: Success! The sound was a little muffled, but the phone was 100% functional after I blew the bits of carbohydrates out of it. I’d still be in the market for a new phone, but there wouldn’t be any sense of urgency about it.

One important tip — seal the phone and the rice in an airtight container, like a Ziploc baggie or a Tupperware container. You want the rice to suck the moisture out of the phone. If you leave it in an open container, it’ll be drawing moisture from the entire room, which will limit its effectiveness.

Fourth Test: Bury it in kitty litter.

So we know that burying it in a desiccant works. What if we use stuff that’s specifically designed to trap moisture, as opposed to using a medium that’s designed to accompany a pad thai?

Yes, kitty litter. And not just any kind: the crystal type, made from 100% silica. That’s the same ingredient in those little white desiccant packets (“DO NOT EAT”) that come tucked inside a new coat or an electronic device.

A sack of Fresh Step Crystals was duly purchased and the burial commenced under the same parameters as the rice. And the results were even better: the phone was as good as new without any audio problems.

Fifth Test: Vodka.

And then it was time to move on to hard alcohol. I’m not sure if this urban legend was inspired by “Mythbusters”‘ fascination with various ways to abuse vodka, but the thinking goes like this: if you marinate the device in vodka, all of the water inside the thing will be displaced by alcohol. And alcohol evaporates much more quickly and cleanly than water…so that has to be good, right?

This ranks up there with all kinds of Great Ideas inspired by a 100-proof beverage. Like “if I drive fast enough, it’ll press down on the tires and I’ll totally clear the bottom of the bridge” or “I’ll get these limes cut a million times faster if I just hold them up to the blades on this blender” or “you can’t possibly get pregnant if you time your moves to the bassline of REM’s ‘Shaking Through’.”

I dropped the phone in a cocktail shaker filled with alcohol and agitated for a couple of minutes. Then I left the phone out to air-dry for 24 hours.

Yup: it was dead. Of all the methods I tried, this was the only phone which wouldn’t even power up. Just like your Uncle Lyle, electronic devices do not become more vibrant and personable after being marinated in hard liquor.

Final Test: The Dry & Store.

This last idea was given to me by a friend of mine, who has a deaf child. Hearing aids are complicated electronic devices that routinely get wet with daily wear. So there’s actually a gizmo that’s specifically designed to dry these things out overnight: the Dry & Store (available from www.dryandstore.com).

I got a hold of the “Global” model. It’s about the size of an index-card box (note to readers born after 1990: about half a Wii) and costs $100. It certainly seems like a winner: you drop the device inside this box and a combination of desiccant packs and forced hot air does its magic for eight hours.

Another success. The phone worked perfectly, and the box even managed to eliminate the little beads of moisture trapped between the screen and its protective window. I did have to remove the UV disinfecting bulb from the lid of the device to make the phone fit inside, but otherwise all was skittles and beer.

I’d also hazard a guess that the Dry & Store would do a much better job on a more complex device (like a Treo with its million buttons, or a hard drive-based music player) than the kitty litter. You won’t have to blow crystal chunks out of the device before putting the battery back in, either.

The Dry & Store is the king of underwater salvage. If you’re in a job or a lifestyle where electronics keep getting wet, having one of these $100 devices on hand is a terrific idea. Otherwise, you’ll have to count on being able to find an audiologist in the area who can sell you one before your dripping phone finally gets sick of waiting and goes ahead and dies.

I am informed, however, that audiologists are kind, warm-hearted souls and if Google Maps locates one nearby, they might let your phone take a spin in one of their drying machines overnight.

The most practical solution for a wet phone is the kitty litter or white rice treatment. You want to get the patient into treatment as soon as possible, and it’s entirely possible that you’ll have all the ingredients you need right there at the scene of the crime. Even if you don’t, you can get ’em for less than ten bucks at any all-night drugstore and start the healing process right there in the parking lot.

Actually, your <i>very</i> best solution would be to button your shirt pocket before using the bathroom. But if we as a species were capable of such careful, reasonable thought, we wouldn’t be desperately burying our phones in vodka and kitty litter, would we?

After The Show

I don’t know if “Goodest Of The Good Sports” even parses as English, but that’s the best way to describe T-Mobile. When I ask a company to lend me some hardware for a column or something, there’s always a bit of a back-and-forth about the terms. How long do I need it, do I require one fresh from the factory or can they just send me one from the usual press loaner pool…that sort of thing.

Suffice to say that “I want to destroy $600 worth of your products” isn’t usually part of the conversation. The phrase does pop to mind after I’ve spent a week trying and failing to get a “zero-configuration” network device working, but it’s never expressed explicitly.

This was indeed a lesson in the power of television. I’d tried to do this topic earlier in the year (before I had some good contacts at T-Mobile) but after three major portable music player and two phone makers turned me down, I (regretfully) put the idea aside.

Then I started contributing to the CBS Early Show. The suffix “…and I’ll be doing this on live network television” has an intoxicating effect.

Yes indeed, I demonstrated all of these techniques on CBS. Here’s the segment, via the magic of YouTube:

I do intend to return to this subject sometime next year. After the column and the segment went out, I received a bunch of new home remedies: use a hairdryer, pop it in the toaster oven, give it a ride in a lab-grade vacuum-chamber…suffice to say that when I have another half-dozen winners, I’ll be calling T-Mobile again.That’s their reward for letting me destroy their phones. Clearly I’m using the word “reward” in the same sense as the Vietnam draft system was known as a “lottery.”

Leopard: What’s it really worth?

Head on over to Macworld.com. I’ve posted a long piece in which I attach a dollar value to every major new feature of Leopard.

Macworld Feature: What’s Leopard really worth?

So how much is Leopard worth? If it were a collection of third-party utilities, I’ve got it at $409. And I’m sorry to have to tell you that you could have added a zero to that if your uncle hadn’t cleaned off that rich, 250-year-old  patina. Because collectors die for that sort of stuff.

I’m usually pretty critical of my own stuff, so I’m always pleased when I find myself laughing at something I wrote just 48 hours earlier:

And now we have the de-wussification of Mail. Mail was once a candy-apple red Mazda Miata. Now it’s a Ford pickup with a gun rack and a rear-window decal of a cartoon Calvin peeing all over the Microsoft Entourage icon.

Y’know, every now and then, the Plinko chip lands in the $10,000 slot.

NCMUG Talk (via iChat)

So if you’re in Brooklyn, Ohio on Monday night, you might wanna drop by the NCMUG meeting. Photons will be bouncing off of my face, land inside the iSight camera in my office, be converted to a stream of ones and zeroes, loaded into IP packets, sent to a Mac in Ohio, unpacked, converted to pixels, and then fired into your retinas once again as photons.

Also, it’s taking place in a Lutheran church. So there’s a fair chance there’ll be hot dish.

Just none for me.

Drat.

More WordPress info

Hello, Andy. Andy From The Past here. I’ve just come across a couple of WordPress links that I think you’ll find useful, now that it’s November or something and you’re cracking your knuckles and sitting down to create an all-new theme and lots of CSS and even a bunch of custom scripts.

  • Headzoo has a super Theme generation cheatsheet, which I’m sure you’ll want to print and keep handy. They also seem to have some nifty plugins, including one which ought to make it easier to embed MP3 and QuickTime players.
  • And here’s a Wiki that collects a bunch of resources in one convenient locale.

Oh, and while you’re at it: find the first bastard who ever claimed that Linux is just as good as any commercial OS and insert a shrimp fork into a creative and amusing place on his or her person.

Yes, for all the usual reasons, but also because I’m typing this on my Ubuntu machine and as always, every time the edge of my palm violates the airspace above the trackpad, it registers as a stroke and a mouseclick and as such, the editor’s insertion point keeps teleporting around erratically and spraying this post with keystrokes.

I think the shrimp forks are behind (not inside) the Rubbermaid organizer in the silverware drawer. Actually, I’ll go into the kitchen right now and make sure they’re where you can easily find them.

Green is a good color on me…

My pal Phil Plait (not necessarily better known as the Bad Astronomy blogger) has just finished taping a segment for “Mythbusters.”

My ego was desperate to find some way to diminish the holistic awesomeness of this. When, for instance, Phil was quoted in a comic book written by Gail Simone, it quickly came back with “That’s nice. But Andy has a credit in a ‘Ren And Stimpy’ comic.”

This went over big. As a reward, my ego was granted use of IhnatCorp’s Red Sox season tickets.

But here, it’s clearly out of its depth. My ego whiteboarded a lot of candidates and finally presented “Yeah, but not with Jamie and Adam. It was with the build crew” to a conference room full of senior staffmembers.

They all exchanged disappointed and baffled looks. After a period of silence as dense as uranium, one of them took over the projector, did a Google image search for Kari Byron, and resumed his seat without having said a single word.

“Isn’t Grant Imahara one of the principal designers and builders of Lucasfilm’s Mark II R2D2 droid?” said a second, reducing the temperature of the room by another twelve degrees.

A third was about to mention that (according to Phil’s Twitter feed) the “Mythbusters” segment in question is actually just the first one of two that he’s participating in.

But there’s such a thing as kicking an abstraction when it’s down. “So,” she said, instead. “We’re agreed that the most sensible response is to express genuine happiness for the success of Andy’s friend?”

Enthusiastic nods all around.

Now that the paperwork’s been properly signed, witnessed, and filed: attaboy, Phil!

The Magic Fix-O-Matic Button

My iPhone woke me up at 7:30 AM on Sunday and about 9 AM today. The first time, it was an alarm that I’d set and it meant that it was time to pull on clothed, pull batteries out of chargers, and head off to the last MIT Flea Market of the year. Today, it was a phone call from a friend with a Mac problem. Yesterday’s wake-up was better.

When people call me in tech emergency, they’re hoping that the conversation will go something like this:

“I don’t know. It was working fine, but now when we push the power button it sputters for like two seconds and then goes dark again.”

“I can’t believe the magic Fix-O-Matic button didn’t work.”

“The…?”

“‘Magic Fix-O-Matic button’. There’s a big button inside the machine that automatically diagnoses your Mac and solves every conceivable problem, from a faulty prefs file to your hard drive being struck by a meteor. Have you pushed it?”

“I didn’t even know it existed.”

“Well, that’s why Apple hides it inside. Only paid Apple techs are supposed to know about it, so…schtumm.”

Sadly, it almost never goes like that. Instead, there’s an hour of me being very patient as the friend fails to understand what I’m trying to explain to him, and then my friend being very patient as I fail to understand his description of what happened after he did what I told him to do. If the friendship survives a session of phone diagnostics then we really ought to just go ahead and have sex, regardless of the friend’s gender. We’ve already determined that nothing can possibly screw this relationship up.
But today my friend’s dream came true because it was indeed a “Fix-O-Matic Button” situation. Unplug everything, pop the latch, find the power manager reset button just above the battery, give it an authoritative press, close ‘er up, plug everything back in, wait a few moments, and then power back up.

There was a bit of a hiccup when there proved to be too many air molecules between the video port and the end of the monitor cable, but otherwise, all was well.

Flexible Upload Plugin Test

Just testing out a new plugin, sensation-seekers. “Flexible Upload” sounds like what I’m looking for as a picture-posting tool (a simple tool that automatically scales and centers images) but it doesn’t seem to be working properly, viz:

tigra-red-batgirl-statues-fixed.jpg

. So I’m making some screenshots and documenting what’s happening so the author can figure out what’s going wrong.

Ideas Gone 404

Amazing. On the last MacBreakWeekly podcast, Chris Breen was introduced as the writer of Macworld’s “Mac 911” Q&A column, which led me to claim to be the author of the magazine’s “Mac 404” column.

“People send me their questions,” I said, “and I don’t answer them.”

Well, guess what:

Mac404

Yes, according to the domain record the show wasn’t online for more than an hour or two before every major domain of Mac404 had been bought…and not all by the same person, either!

When somebody emailed me about this today I did feel an odd involuntary twinge. As soon as you realize that something you never wanted is now unavailable, the reptilian part of your brain kicks in and a few green drops of Regret leak into the cognitive buffer before a maintenance guy dogs down the valve and your good senses return.

But it’s kind of a cool URL and I hope its new owners do something neat with it. Ain’t nothin’ worse than when there’s a great URL like macsforkids.com, and it turns out that the damned thing is just parked somewhere.

I’ve bought a bunch of URLs over the years based on nothing more than an idle whim followed by my surprise that nobody had claimed it already. I wouldn’t even know that I owned ’em except for those kind letters that Register.com sends you when YOUR DOMAIN IS DUE TO EXPIRE! (in 15 months).

I resist the urge to renew. Twenty bucks is twenty bucks, plus I’d hate to break the heart of the man or woman who has the perfect site for ElvisVersusKirk.com.

Like Buttering An Ocelot

It’s not much of a title but it’s the best I can come up with after the past two or three hours. I wound up doing some productive goofing off tonight, though I use the term “productive” advisedly. If the purpose was to put off doing actual, paying work, then put me in a flightsuit and hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner in the background as I stroll out to meet the cameras. If I was truly hoping that any of the WordPress-ey things I researched and installed would actually work, though…not so much, no.

I’m doing lot of research and that always involves a certain amount of outright stealing. “Hey, a ‘Most Popular Posts’ thingamabob in the sidebar!” I think, after drifting across a support page for something or other. “Cool, I’ll have that.”

So I look for a WordPress plugin and wind up installing the OWA Most Popular widget, which seems to be just the thing. Failure. Oh, right…I bet you need to install Open Weblog Analytics to make it work. Download and install OWA…and now the whole site’s spitting out fireball-like errors.

“Drat and blast,” said I, and I meant it. Were I a properly-licenced Londoner I would have added “With knobs on” for maximum effect.

Once again, I’ve been skeezixed by tool that claims to be zero-configuration, but isn’t. Some other night I might have time to figure out precisely what’s going wrong, but it seems as though I can score a cheap but very real victory by simply deactivating those new plugins but a win’s a win. I depart from the Admin page garlanded with glory.

It was dumb to consider OWA to begin with…my host has an analytics package already installed. I actually hadn’t ever used it before. I opened the correct URL and gorblimey! Despite my having published the URL to this test blog absolutely nowhere, lots of you seem to be finding the place all right. If Pets.com were getting these numbers, then the sock puppet wouldn’t be battling Gary Coleman for dumpster scraps behind the iHOP.

I’ve never had blog stats before. There were ways of figuring out how much traffic my AppleScript blog was pulling, but I was never interested in seeing the data. It seemed that if the numbers were too low or too high, it’d affect the experiment, so to speak.

But I can see that I’ve been missing out. Someone typed “philosophers are morons” into a search engine, and they landed here. I’m also pleased to learn that there are apparently a large number of Swedes reading this.

Howdy, Swedes! I don’t feel that there are enough people out there sucking up to your fine nation and soliciting your patronage. Allow me to correct that immediately. The next paragraph contains a valuable tip that will increase the performance of any PC or Mac by a minimum of 40%, via a simple four-minute installation of a component that can be purchased at any corner store for less than three dollars:

You will not be able to read the above text unless your IP address resolves to a .se domain.

Moving onward: I downloaded a WordPress plugin that’s supposed to work with my analytics package and no, that didn’t work either.

The rest of the evening was spent in matters of philosophy. A message board continues to be a good idea, but I might have to talk to the admin of my server to get that up and running because the instructions for installing bbPress (for example) make the whole procedure look like home dentistry.

But I think I need to start looking hard at what’s out there and settling on a board app because the more I think about it the better this idea sounds. I think an Ihnatko board would attract dozens of posts a month rather than hundreds or thousands, but it would make me feel good to know that I have message threads set up for people who want to get support for my books or have other kinds of interactions that can only clumsily be handled via podcasts, blogs, and emails.

And then I revisited the hoary First Page question. I think I’ve settled on a layout for this here blog. I have it all drawn up on a sheet of notebook paper and everything.

But it’s the same question I asked at the very beginning: when someone types “ihnatko.com” or “cwob.com” into a browser, do I want them to wind up right here? Or should I establish a sort of “lobby” that would appeal to first-timer visitors?

I’ve been leaning against the lobby (and told to move along by hotel security; apparently they have a serious “no riff-raff” policy). But while I was loitering there I’d sort of concluded that a separate front page would be a waste of space.

But tonight I saw some of the awesome design work being done by Mule Design Studio and it’s kind of turned me around on the idea. A front page like that — and the front page like the one they designed for All Things Digital — really sells the idea of having a powerful answer to the question “Just who the hell are you people anyway?” You see it and you want to come on in and look around.

Hmm. Yeah, a front page with a quick bio, a highlighted blog post, column, podcast, and Flickr photo, a promo for one or two of my books. That could work. But at this stage I dunno how that page would roll. Would I have to keep updating it manually, or would I have to build some PHP scripts to generate it automatically? Either way, that’s work. More work than not having a front page, anyway.

Okay, well, I’ve managed to waste even more time by blogging about how I’m wasting time. It’s amazing that I continue to claim that this blog is only in beta because it seems to me like it’s just passed the only credible test for a functioning blog.

Still, miles to go, miles to go.

New MacBreakWeekly Podcast

I spent part of the afternoon sitting on a hard chair at Duncecap Studios, recording a new episode of MacBreakWeekly. It’s already been edited and duplicated onto 230,000 cassettes for distribution.

You may claim your copy (deliverable via etherpacketcourier) at this here link.

Leopard was the topic of the day, with inevitable forays into the iPhone. This one went down cold-filtered smooth, with no bitter aftertaste.

FeedBurned

FeedBurner has, for the moment, been classified as “that which I am powerless to change” in the Serenity Prayer system of nomenclature. I thought I’d set everything up correctly (I created a brand-new account on FeedBurner.com, then downloaded, installed, activated, and configured the FeedBurner plugin for WordPress…but nope, nothin’.

On the plus side, FeedBurner is gamely maintaining a remarkably-accurate simulation of a working thing. There’s a feed there and it works. But every time I try to subscribe to my own feed, I get the WordPress feed and not FeedBurner’s.

All of the official and user-generated documentation on this thing says that the plugin contains 100% of the necessary mojo. No need for me to edit the site’s .htcaccess file or to chalk anything onto the carpet that my former parish priest wouldn’t approve of. And yet…it ain’t working.

In a way, the most frustrating diagnostic problems are the ones dealing with tools that are just plain supposed to work without any addition configuration. If this plugin were more complicated, then fixing it would probably be a piece of cake. As it is, you wind up double-checking that the plugin is active and that you typed in the name of your feed correctly.

And then it’s all down to blinking and sighing until Bongo, The God Of Such Things decides that you’ve blinked and sighed enough and he grants you your boon.

Okay, well, I’ve turned FeedBurner off for now. To be honest, I had two concerns about it. Even if it worked like a charm, I still had to figure out how to best configure separate feeds for all the various kinds of content I’ll be slinging here. WordPress’ build-in RSS generator doesn’t have all the oomph of FeedBurner, but at least it works transparently.

Standing Firm

An edited version of this column was first published in The Chicago Sun-Times on October 4, 2007.

How tragic. What was once thought of as America’s sweetheart of the cellphone industry, a fresh, charming piece of technology with a bright and exciting future, is starting to become more famous for making headline-grabbing stumbles and sprawls.

Horrifuingly, iPhone has become the Lindsay Lohan of technology.

I blame the iPhone’s management, of course.

And the latest flap has been the worst one of them all. Apple released a major update to the iPhone’s firmware last week. Firmware 1.1.1 adds an iTunes Store application as well as some security fixes and minor user-interface tweaks. And if you’ve used a tool to unlock your iPhone so you could use it on T-Mobile and other outside phone networks, it will probably render the phone inoperable and maybe even unrecoverable.

Yes, it’s that last thing that’s grabbing the headlines. And not just in the nerd press, either. “Apple disables users’ iPhones,” I heard on the local nightly newscast. “and the company says they won’t fix them!”

As for the nerd press…they’re reacting the way a cat does when it’s taken a nap in your clean laundry and suddenly finds itself tumbling around in the dryer. Suffice to say that they are not calm and measured. Even folks on highly-partisan Mac sites are accusing Apple of intentionally breaking those unlocked phones out of pure spite.

Well, that’s just rubbish. I’m almost willing to dismiss that idea purely on a humanist level but in addition to my basic faith in humanity there’s the fact that unlike other phones, SIM-unlocking an iPhone is a very messy trick. They’re hacks, not consumer solutions, and the risks are severe and unavoidable. It’s not like riding in an airplane…it’s like jumping out of one.

Apple couldn’t have protected these phones without a great deal of time and effort that was better spent improving the iPhone itself. And they did warn the iPhone community about the dangers of SIM-unlocking. They did it when these tools first became available and they even inserted a big warning — in capital letters, no less — in the firmware installer itself. What we have here isn’t a case of Apple being evil: It’s a demonstration of what can happen when hacker tools are sold as consumer solutions.

Folks still have a right to be very upset at Apple, though. The update trashed some phones that hadn’t been modified at all, its users claim. Worse…it removes all unauthorized third-party applications and makes it impossible for them to ever run again.

And this hits me right where it hurts. I count on my iPhone eBook reader to keep info and documents from my desktop at hand. Plus, I’ve finally gotten to the point in “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” text adventure where I need to get the Babel Fish.

It’s amazing that the iPhone developer community has come so far without any help whatsoever from Apple. The company released no sample code, no tech docs, no software development kit. But the iPhone is based on a popular OS, and Unix programmers took the ball and ran with it. By September, there was a friendly, consumer-level app that downloaded, installed and ran commercial-quality software.

It was such a rich system that the iPhone was gaining new and wonderful features every week. Sure, these apps technically broke the rules of Apple’s user agreement, but unlike the SIM hack, it broke nothing on the device itself.

With the new firmware installed, it appears that all software must be “signed” by Apple or else it’s a no-go. So if I upgrade my iPhone’s firmware from 1.02 to 1.1.1, I’ll gain an app that lets me buy music directly from the iTunes store, but I’ll lose all the other apps I’ve installed over the past month.

It’s a bad trade. I ain’t updating.

But back to poor Lindsay iPhone. The iPhone — and’s Apple’s — reputations have taken a real hit, even though these issues don’t really affect the average iPhone consumer. As with the real Lindsay, it can all be fixed if Apple just learns how to communicate better.

There are reasons why the firmware update created so much havoc for so many phones, and it mostly isn’t the company’s fault. Why aren’t they explaining this clearly? And while ideally, I want to have full control of my hardware, all I truly need are beautiful, reliable tools that help me get through the day. If the best apps are only available signed, sealed, and delivered from the iTunes Store, fine. But when, kind sirs, will that be happening?

So here’s the public impression that Apple has created via its silence: the iPhone is a $399 phone that can be crippled via a software update and in some cases, if you take it in for warranty service, they won’t fix it. This expensive device can’t run any “real” apps that didn’t come pre-installed, and Apple has announced no plans to give the iPhone the same ability found in every Treo, Blackberry, and Nokia that costs half as much.

Please, Apple. Fix this before the court orders the iPhone to be fitted with an ankle bracelet or something.

After The Show…

I felt sort of an obligation to write this column. My iPhone review was pretty damned enthusiastic and the effects of the firmware update really influenced my thoughts on the device. I didn’t really care so much about what happens to phones that had been SIM-unlocked — like I said in the column, it’s inherently an unsafe hack and you’re foolish to try it if you don’t appreciate the risks — but zorching third-party apps with the new firmware update limits the potential of the iPhone.

The iPhone needs real, third-party apps. That’s really the distinction that separates a plain-Jane contract phone from a true smartphone.

And yes, Apple has opened the iPhone wide for developers of web-based iPhone apps. Seriously, if you can only associate the phrase “web-based app” with images of a JavaScript-based currency converter, then you desperately need to take a look at EditGrid. It’s the most impressive iPhone app I’ve seen. It might even be the most impressive handheld spreadsheet I’ve ever seen on any device:

EditGrid for iPhone

Yup, that’s technically a website you’re looking at. And yet it’s a full-featured spreadsheet app with tables, layers, charts, and everything. I use it all the time, both as a simply way to carry arbitrary desktop data around with me and as something of an outliner and list manager on my iPhone.

Cool. But when I board a plane, that spreadsheet goes bye-bye. Ditto for parking garages, the Amtrak station where I board the train to New York, and most of the state of Vermont, in my experience.

I insist that this is not a good thing.

Compare and contrast this state of affairs with the world that a Treo or Nokia or Blackberry owner knows. They can simply copy files directly onto their handsets. Hell, many models even have a card slot. Just copy files onto a memory card and then stick it in your phone, just like a thumb drive. And a cheap third-party spreadsheet app, word processor, list manager, et cetera ad infinitum will let you read and work with the file no matter where you go.

Yes, you can use it on a train. You can use it on a plane. You can use it here or there…you can use it anywhere.

I really shouldn’t complain. Much of my new book (“iPhone: Fully Loaded”; bless youfor asking) deals with ways of getting around the “thou shalt not put your own damned files on this device” commandment imposed by Apple and iTunes. But statistically-speaking, a serious percentage of iPhone owners aren’t benefiting from book royalties so they’d probably prefer these sort of tasks to be so simple that you don’t need to buy a book at all.

(No matter how pornographically-low the price of said book might be.)

No, I still haven’t updated my iPhone to 1.11. This is what my iPhone’s home screen looks like:

iPhone with lots of apps

…I think you can appreciate that at this time, a firmware update would be a bit of a downgrade. Visit the homepage of AppTapp Installer for instructions on how to do this to your iPhone.

(Or, better yet…buy my book. Please. There’s a hole in the roof and the children need shoes and winter’s coming but screw all of that because I’m sick and tired of not owning an HDTV.)

As I suspected, the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between Apple and third party developers is indeed ongoing. The latest round has gone to the mice, with new tools for jailbreaking iPhones and even iPod Touches.

I’ll update my firmware after I’ve had a chance to digest these new techniques and understand how they work. All’s I can say is that one of the most important apps on my iPhone — following only the Big Four at the bottom of the Springboard screen — is indeed a simple book reader app that allows me to view documents I’ve copied into my iPhone’s storage. The phrase “cold dead hand” leaps to mind when asked to comment on my commitment to retaining this app.

But the real point of the column is that Apple has been doing a terrible job of addressing people’s concerns. Apple should have put Greg Joswiak or some other high-ranking, avuncular, and camera-ready employee in front of a sympathetic interviewer, and made the company’s side of the story plain.

And it’s unquestionably time for Apple to make its application strategy plain. Folks like me will be mollified by the knowledge that an SDK is definitely coming. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday, and then for the rest of our lives we can play Joust on our $400 phones (or hell, even have a to-do list).

For now, the question “Should I buy an iPhone?” has become a bit more complicated. I remain an enthusiastic user, but Apple needs to decide whether they’re building a mobile computing platform or an iPod. If it’s a platform, then the users should be able to count on a certain amount of control over the device.

If it’s an iPod, then the users should be warned that it is what it is and if it isn’t already what they want it to be, then they should buy something else.

Customizing WP Cutlines by Category

Andy –

Me again. You mentioned earlier that you prolly want to set up your new WordPress theme so that posts that fall into specific categories (like the Sun-Times columns) get their own special title treatments and stuff. This blog post explains how to do that.

Technically, it’s for a specific theme that these folks have put together, but it ought to work with any theme. Just thought you’d like to have this URL handy when you need it.

Jazz Odyssey

Oddly enough, I like it when a computer screws up and the reason turns out to be “Andy Ihnatko is a moron.” Because I’ve been dealing with Andy’s bonehead mistakes for years now and I’m usually pretty good at unraveling them. Fixing a piece of boneheaded hardware or software is the sort of task that makes me yearn for a job that requires me to have a pair of brown shorts and a Class 3 license.

I thought that a piece I put up on the blog on Friday would be automatically posted at 6 AM today. This is a Sun-Times column that appeared in the print and online editions a week ago from Thursday and it represents one of the reasons why I wanted to switch to a meatier blog app than the one I’d already written.

I’ve always thought that there was so much more that I could be doing with the online version.

I wind up cutting lots of stuff to make the thing fit into my maximum word count. There’s always a brilliant (brilliant, I say!) intro that gets cut, and when I’m still 200 words over I have to sigh, select the careful 150-word explanation of why this feature is so revolutionary, tap “delete,” and then type “this feature is revolutionary; trust me” in its place.

Plus, I’ve always wanted a comment system at minimum and maybe even a message board…all kinds of neat stuff. I’ve made these suggestions but there are a couple of roadblocks. Filing two columns (a print and online one) would mean more work for both my editors and the site admins, plus the installation of new infrastructure.

And then there are legal issues, believe it or not. Newspapers worry about libel the same way a touring rock band worries about STD’s. It’s part-and-parcel a hazard of the business. Libel in a newspaper is pretty well-understood and there are mechanisms to ensure that the paper isn’t getting sued three times a day (chief among them: writers and editors adhere to standards of journalistic ethics).

But what happens when Random Q. User posts “Steve Ballmer is a big stinky poopie-head” in a comment to an online article? Legally, does it have the same dismissive quality as a conversation between two people who happened to be standing in the lobby of the Sun-Times building? Or would it be treated like any other piece of content published under the Sun-Times masthead?

Fortunately, I retain copyright to my columns, so with the Sun-Times’ blessing, I intend to re-post each of my columns here. Out of courtesy, I’m putting them on a ten-day delay (a column that the Sun-Times printed and posted on Thursday will appear here a week from the following Monday) so that the paper can benefit from the novelty and newsworthiness of each piece.

It’s really intended as a super-archive and as a way of adding extra value to the stuff I write for the Sun-Times. So bookmark my directory on the Sun-Times to get the freshest stuff. But when the Celestial Waste of Bandwidth goes out of beta, there’ll be a separate page and a separate RSS feed for the “enhanced” column.

Now, let’s get back to the idea of me being an idiot. Yeah, I thought today would be the 16th, not the 15th, and that’s why the first enhanced column didn’t appear today. So you have that to look forward to.

I hope you like it. And don’t email me to ask “You stole ‘After The Show’ from Oprah, didn’t you” because you know damned well I did. My defense is the same as when I started doing an annual holiday “My Favorite Things” column: who are you going to steal ideas from if not the most insanely successful and beloved woman in the world?