Hard Cell

The hottest cell phone du jour is also the smallest: the slider, which you may remember in concept from its pop-culture debut in 1999's The Matrix. Comprising two sliding halves, the top with the earpiece, the bottom with the keypad—making the phone smaller than any of its non-sliding brethren—the slider is the latest testament to technology's might.

If you buy one, it's also proof you're a big tool. I already did. But so did a friend of mine from high school who works in construction, and his ingenuity in actually making this thing live up to its potential more than cancels out my mere trendiness. Talking to him now is like having a conversation with the guy who created Myst—fun for him, indecipherable for me.

We both own the Siemens SL56, one of many phones that come with key features locked—or blanked—out, much like when you buy a car without a clock, a radio or a cigarette lighter. Service providers such as Cingular are worried about privacy issues that come with a camera phone not much bigger than a Krugerrand. They don't want you to run around pirating stuff by taking photographs on the sly, and they especially don't want you trading their own custom-made ringtones that sound remarkably like 50 Cent's “In Da Club.”

So you have to pay an extra monthly fee if you want the SL56 to become the Swiss Army knife of telephones—a phone capable of supporting a camera, surfing the Internet and downloading data from your computer with an infrared beam. But even after that, you still can't trade ringtones or send photos directly to your computer. You have to send them through Big Brother: Cingular.

This is where people like my friend come in. Incensed at being held hostage by a cellular provider, they're part of a cottage industry of cell phone hackers, similar to the folks who have made stealing cable TV almost as easy as paying for it. They're the Kevin Mitnicks of their time, with at least one key exception: despite thriving trade on eBay and in other online bulletin boards, electronic help desks and chat rooms, no one's been spectacularly arrested. And they appear to have slightly more success with the ladies.

So far, my friend has figured out how to change his phone screen from the standard clock face to a custom picture: in his case, his car, a '52 Hudson Hornet. He's written up his entire address book (an adaptation, I suspect, of Richard Nixon's enemies list) on the computer, then, using infrared, downloaded it to his telephone through a tiny window in the side. But he still can't upload anything—text or pictures. And all this monkeying around has made his reception worse than the phone I made out of two dog-food cans and a long wire when I was a kid.

This'll all change once he gets that new software from Europe or China, he vowed recently. And pictures?

“Once I get the right data cable, I'll be set,” he promised. I'm waiting.

His is a time-consuming task. Me, I bought the SL56 because I wanted a cell phone that would fit in my pants—and, sure, maybe because somewhere in there it has the dormant power to hack into the Pentagon's mainframe. I salute those with enough gumption to unlock my phone. In an age when phones, cars, even houses are made of plastic, they're showing that some people still know how to stick it to the Man. That's the American way, even if it takes all your time.

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