I mentioned in a previous article (WWDC 2010 Keynote: Truth and Rumors) I had the opportunity recently to use a jailbroken iPod Touch. A friend of mine, who is a bit more of a tinkerer than I am, decided he would strike out down that adventurous path and see what happened. It was a second generation Touch he fully expects to replace when the new ones come out running iPhone OS 4.0 some time in the late Summer or early Fall. While I played with it we had an interesting discussion around the practical, ethical, and pragmatic implications of jailbreaking. With the current debate around open and closed systems; walled gardens versus the open Internet; the Internet versus the Spinternet, why do people jailbreak? What are the advantages and disadvantages? Won’t iPhone OS 4.0 bring most of these extra third party features anyway? All questions pertinent to us as users of the iPhone OS.
But first, some background.
For those new to the ecosystem or not in the know, jailbreaking describes a process where the locks on the iPhone OS are overridden. Apple is a firm believer in the managed user experience. They implement locks on the operating system to ensure every iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch only runs approved applications. Only approved applications are listed in the App Store and this is the only source of applications. To receive approval an application must adhere to the rules and regulations Apple makes rules regarding application inclusion and then be vetted and approved by a Human who ensures those rules are met. This is in contrast to an ecosystem like Android that has a central application store called the Marketplace but that also allows applications to be installed on the operating system by simply clicking a link. Apple maintains this is done to ensure a consistent user experience that adheres to Apple’s own application development guidelines.
Jailbreaking then takes software that has been written to override and replace Apple’s locks on the operating system so that any application can be installed. A couple of popular jailbreaking applications are Spirit and Redsn0w. While each implements their overrides in different ways and to different effect, the end result is the same. Once the locks are broken, the user is free to install any application they desire that has been written for the iPhone environment. A popular app store for jailbroken devices is Cydia. Cydia comes installed with a lot of jailbreaking applications and is typically available on the device at the end of the jailbreaking process.
The question remains then, why would someone jailbreak their device? The most common answer is to bring applications or features that aren’t otherwise available. Because of the closed, and sometimes restrictive, system Apple implements there are programs that aren’t available any other way. One I saw that has gotten some press lately was the Wi-Fi Sync app from Greg Hughes. It allows a jailbroken iPhone OS device to synchronize over a local Wi-Fi connection instead of through the USB cable. I also saw Backgrounder (multitasking) and Categories (folder-based icon management). All bring functionality to the device that isn’t otherwise available. A native Google Voice app is another example of a rejected application available on jailbroken devices. People jailbreak their devices either to gain this functionality, make a political statement about Apple’s practices, or a little bit of both. The problem with jailbreaking is, should your hardware fail and you seek a replacement from Apple, you will be rejected. Jailbreaking contravenes the terms of service of the iPhone OS and breaks the warranty on the device. It’s true you can restore the device back to its previous state but apparently traces are left behind that Apple can use to prove your previous deeds.
If part of the movement behind jailbreaking is a reaction to the features the iPhone OS does not currently support, it will be interesting to see what effect iPhone OS 4.0 brings. With native multitasking and icon management, two of the prime features jailbreaking offers will be built in. Although it is unlikely Apple will open up its processes any more in the new operating system, if two of the main jailbreaking features are natively available it makes sense many will opt to stay with the native operating system. Some have also speculated that Apple rejected Mr. Hughes’ app because they had native support in the works. Wouldn’t that be interesting? I’d like to see how the jailbreaking numbers skew before and after the official release of iPhone OS 4.0 with all the goodies and features Apple hasn’t included yet.
While jailbreaking can bring some interesting and different functionality to your iPhone OS device, it is also fraught with disadvantages. It is not a decision that should be taken lightly. Personally, I’m going to hold out to see how iPhone OS 4.0 operates on my device before I decide whether or not to go down the road of my friend. Native, unaltered operating systems are always the most stable and I’m not personally convinced it’s for me.
What do you think? Would you consider jailbreaking your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch? If you have already, would you consider sharing your experience in the comments section? Did you find it to be a positive experience or negative? Would you do it again? Leave us your comments on this and anything else pertaining to jailbreaking you’d like to share.
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