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iPhone 3GS firmware 3.1 jailbreak available--sort of

New tool allowing for jailbreaking firmware 3.1 of the iPhone 3GS is now available, but it can only work with phones that have been jailbroken before.

The cat and mouse game continues between Apple and the Dev Team, a group of guys who are passionate about freeing Apple handheld devices from the company's short leash. The Dev Team has been jailbreaking new Apple firmware for years, and it just did so again--though this time around it seems Apple is still taking the decisive lead.

The team announced Friday the availability of PwnageTool 3.13, which allows for jailbreaking and unlocking the iPhone 3GS running the latest firmware, version 3.1. Currently only a Mac version of the tool is available, but the Windows version will be out soon. (Keep in mind, however, that you download and use the PwnageTool at your own risk.)

A jailbroken iPhone can do a lot more than what Apple wants it to do. Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

The tool creates a custom firmware from the version 3.1 firmware released by Apple. To install it, you put the phone into recovery mode (turn it off, then plug it in while holding down the Home button) and use iTunes to restore the phone with the custom firmware (hold down the Option key while clicking on the Restore button).

The custom firmware, apart from jailbreaking, will not upgrade the baseband--the chip that connects the phone to a service provider--and therefore still allows the phone to be unlocked.

But there's a catch here. The tool only works with the iPhone 3GS that has been jailbroken with the firmware version 3.0 or 3.0.1. This means if you buy a new iPhone 3GS that already has version 3.1 on it or you have updated to version 3.1 using iTunes, there's still no way to have your phone jailbroken. There's even a rumor that there might never be one, unless a new exploit is found.

If this is true, it seems Apple has finally been able to gain significant ground in stopping the practice it claims could pose a threat to national security. And for thousands, if not millions of iPhone 3GS users who rely on jailbreaking and unlocking to use their phones with the service of their choice, this is sad news.

Note that this development only applies to the iPhone 3G, 3GS and the iPod Touch 2G and 3G. The iPhone 2G, and other generations of the iPod Touch can now be jailbroken regardless of what versions of firmware they run.

Apart from allowing for unlocking, which makes the iPhone work with any cell service provider, jailbreaking allows the device to support third-party applications not available at Apple's App Store. Examples of functions offered by these apps include tethering, video recording for the iPhone 3G and 2G, running multiple applications in the background, changing the display themes, and so on. Most are also free.

The firmware version 3.1 for the iPhone 3G and 3GS is a significant update as it adds multimedia messaging to the phone, tempting a lot of jailbroken iPhone users to do the upgrade before the Dev Team could find a way to jailbreak the firmware. On the downside, firmware 3.1 seems to drain the phone's battery life really fast.