A Look at the Windows Phone Hacking Scene

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Back around the turn of the century, Windows Mobile had a very large hacking community.  This was very important because many stock devices shipped with annoying and frustrating bugs.  I remember the HTC Himalaya (XDA II), one of the very first touch screen Windows Mobile phones with functional Bluetooth and an internal antenna.  It shipped with a limitation of support for only 32 processes which quickly were used up by most of the built in services thus making multi-tasking practically impossible.  This, along with the previous HTC Wallaby Windows Mobile smartphone (originally known as the XDA) inspired many tweaks and hacks intended to customize our smartphones to actually make them usable.

Hacking communities like XDA-Developers became essential to getting the most out of your Windows Mobile devices.  Tweaks and custom ROMs were really required to get decent battery life, faster performance, or even basic bug fixes.  The problem was that even if Microsoft was able to fix things within the core OS, OEMs and Carriers had little interest in testing and releasing the updates and fixes in any kind of timely manner.

Fast forward to 2012 and the Windows Phone scene is quite different.  No longer is it absolutely essential to hack your smartphone in order to get it to do the things you want it to do.  For the most part, people are very happy with the stability and functionality of Windows Phone 7.5 as soon as they start using it right out of the box.   Still, that doesn’t stop the curiosity of the hacker community in seeing what else is really possible with a little reverse engineering.

The first big news about Windows Phone hacking happened about a year ago with the “ChevronWP7” team.  This small group was able to figure out a way to developer unlock Windows Phones so that users could side-load applications to their phones without having to go through the Windows Phone Marketplace.  This method was advantageous to developers who didn’t want to pay for a developer unlock or just wanted to install personal apps to their phones without publishing them for all to download.  The unfavorable aspect of side-loading is the fact that it makes piracy easier since all you have to do is get a hold of the XAP installation files to get an app without paying for it.  Microsoft approached this Chevron hack in an interesting and unsuspected way.  While other companies like Sony or Apple might fight back and attempt to sue the hackers or at least make their jobs more difficult… Microsoft decided to invite the Chevron hacking team to Microsoft headquarters for a discussion meant to encourage the hacking community but also keep things from getting dangerously out of hand.  As it turned out Microsoft’s compromise was to allow the Chevron tool to be used by 10,000 people for $7 each.

The fact that Microsoft was willing to befriend hackers instead of suing them is pretty good to see.  It’s kind of a middle of the road approach.  On one hand you’ve got Apple who certainly doesn’t want anyone to be able to jailbreak their iPhones and install custom software that does not go through their own app store.  Then on the other extreme you’ve got Google’s Android which is basically a free-for-all and nobody cares if developers’ apps are easy to pirate and distribute for free.

Why Would You Want to Jailbreak a Windows Phone?

Right now, there are still other ways to unlock or “Jailbreak” Windows Phones in order to allow side-loading of apps, but there are other reasons to dev-unlock or “interop unlock” a Windows Phone such as fun Homebrew apps that bring interesting new functionality.

WARNING: Before you go trying to unlock your phone or get root access we have to give you the usual warning. It’s possible to make your phone unusable by performing these hacks.  You will probably void your warranty as well, and you could risk losing access to future official updates.  Please take caution.

Here’s a very cool Lock Widgets Homebrew app that lets you place widgets with different types of information on your lock screen.

There’s also an app that allows you to pin folders to your start screen which contain a number of other apps.

WPH Tweaks is a Homebrew app that lets you enable or disable certain aspects of the Windows Phone operating system.  For example, you can hide the clock, turn on 32-bit color, disable screen timeout, show a shutter button in the camera app, disable jump list letters in the programs menu, customize alert sounds, remove carrier splash screens, etc.

Maybe you’re bored with the solid colored live tiles and want to add some texture?  Here’s a Windows Phone theme creator for developer unlocked phones.

Maybe you don’t like it when the screen rotates while you’re laying in bed on your side.  There’s an orientation lock Homebrew app for that too.

The old Windows Mobile had a huge amount of flexibility for installing multiple operating systems thanks in part to HaRET which is now also in the works for Windows Phone devices though it might be a while before we start seeing multi-boot capabilities on Windows Phones again.  There are also some great projects in the works for doing things like full backups and backing up game progress data.  It’s hugely frustrating having to start a game from the beginning after getting a new phone so it’s good to see that some one is working on that.

Like I said in the beginning, for many people, there isn’t such a need to hack Windows Phone since many aspects of the operating system are quite satisfactory, however there are those who certainly want more tweaking and freedom to create new features themselves.  While the Windows Phone hacking scene doesn’t seem to be as thriving as the Android community, there are certainly numerous innovative projects and Homebrew apps to be found.

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About The Author
Adam Z. Lein
Adam has had interests in combining technology with art since his first use of a Koala pad on an Apple computer. He currently has a day job as a graphic designer, photographer, systems administrator and web developer at a small design firm in Westchester, NY. His love of technology extends to software development companies who have often implemented his ideas for usability and feature enhancements. Mobile computing has become a necessity for Adam since his first Uniden UniPro PC100 in 1998. He has been reviewing and writing about smartphones for Pocketnow.com since they first appeared on the market in 2002.Read more about Adam Lein!