So is iPhone Jailbreaking Now a Good Thing?

July 29th, 2010

Up until this week, if you attempted to jailbreak your iPhone — which means unlocking it and making it possible to use apps from sources other than the App Store — you might be regarded as a rogue, maybe even a lawbreaker. You might wonder if Apple might actually show up at your door and seize your iPhone.

Of course, in the real world, Apple has continued to tolerate the practice, while warning customers that if you accidentally brick your phone — make it unusable — they aren’t responsible for the consequences. The risk is all yours.

However, a new modification of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act essentially makes the practice legal, at least insofar as you possibly suffering any unsavory consequences. That is, aside from risking the voiding of your iPhone’s product warranty because of the possible misuse of the product.

What makes matters doubly confusing is that this revision will be in effect for just three years, meaning that future copyright officials might opt to let it expire, or devise something totally different.

The real issue, however, is whether Apple’s decision to place double-bolt locks on the iPhone, the iPod touch and the iPad are right and proper. That, of course, is evidently one of the reasons that the U.S. FTC is inquiring as to Apple’s business practices.

Now I suppose you can appreciate Apple’s point of view. The App Store is a relatively safe and secure environment from which to download software from a choice of over 225,000 products. You don’t have to worry about malware, porn or bug ridden apps. If a submission has a show stopping bug or behaves in an unsanctioned manner that Apple otherwise missed, not to worry. They’ll delete it pronto!

Certainly families ought to feel comforted acquiring software for their Apple mobile products in the online equivalent of Disney World.

However, there are also power users will feel constrained by the limitations Apple imposes on the use of their mobile gadgets. They want to be able to install anything they want, and jailbreaking is their route to freedom. After jailbreaking, they can also unlock their iPhones to use on a different network that’s also hardware compatible.

All well and good, except for one thing: You see, Apple doesn’t hold a monopoly position in the smartphone segment. Far from it. Nothing stops you from buying someone else’s product, if you want more freedom to use a gadget of this sort as you see fit. Certainly, Apple doesn’t want to lose a sale, but in the hotly competitive mobile device universe, owners of products using Google’s Android OS appear to have more power to use and abuse their handsets if that’s what they prefer.

On the other hand, the real question is whether Apple would benefit if they installed an “Exit” sign on their mobile products. Such a setup could, with appropriate warnings that Apple isn’t responsible for the consequences, allow you to do something already available on an Android phone, which is to leave the safe confines of an App Store and fend for yourself.

Now from Apple’s point of view, it’s also possible that their legal department feels they might still be considered liable if something goes wrong. Support people might also be inundated with calls from folks who installed buggy software, suffered malware outbreaks or ended up bricking their iPhones and iPads after departing the App Store. Not a fun prospect.

My feeling about all this is that having a “red light” district or App Store exit strategy wouldn’t be a bad idea, although I can see the potential for support complications. On the other hand, that approach would go against everything Apple stands for, which is to provide a seamless end-to-end user experience. In fact, I rather suspect that, if Apple had introduced the Macintosh in 2010 rather than 1984, they would have devised a similar scheme for handling software purchasing for that platform too.

The Mac, of course, first appeared when the Internet was still largely a work in progress among a small number of power users, so such a merchandising approach would never have been possible.

Today, the cows have already left the barn, so it’s too late to shut the system down. This doesn’t mean Apple can’t — or won’t — unleash a Mac App Store as an alternative, not a replacement, for traditional software purchasing. It wouldn’t prevent you from buying a physical copy from a retail store or online merchant, or downloading the app from other vendors.

Apple is already part way there with an online store and a retail chain. The server infrastructure has been established with iTunes, and it wouldn’t take much in the way of backend development to add yet another storefront for you.

The problem is, of course, third-party dealers who wouldn’t appreciate the competition. But Apple hasn’t been afraid to take on their own resellers in other ways. What difference would it make this time?

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8 Responses to “So is iPhone Jailbreaking Now a Good Thing?”

  1. dfs says:

    I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me that once your warrantee has expired and your AT&T contract has also expired you ought to be free as a bird to use an iPhone however you want, nobody has any business telling what you can and can’t do with the thing.

  2. Karl says:

    Ultimately it probably doesn’t really matter what Apple does with software/firmware lockouts. Someone will figure out a way to bypass them.

    I never really thought jail breaking an iPhone was illegal and really don’t see how it could be. I can see it voiding warranties and of course if you don’t pay your AT&T contract (if you signed up for one) you may have legal issues.

    I believe Apple should tread lightly here. Apple’s bread and butter are regular consumers but they don’t want to alienate power users.

  3. Travis Butler says:

    Bluntly, I think the belief that putting “appropriate warnings that Apple isn’t responsible for the consequences” would somehow be an effective disclaimer is a fantasy. And “the potential for support complications” is more than just potential, IMHO.

    I worked tech support for APS Technologies for two years back in their glory days. I’d say at least half the support calls I dealt with, if not more, were MacOS or application-related issues that had nothing to do with the hard drives we sold – but I was still stuck having to prove that it wasn’t our problem by trying to fix their problem. People want someone to hold responsible, by and large they don’t pay attention to disclaimers, and they’ll go for the most visible link in the chain. (Remember how, a few months ago, there were news stories trumpeting the first iPhone malware exploit? Remember how all of the mainstream media (and many tech publications) completely neglected to mention that it only affected users who had jailbroken their iPhones and didn’t change the root password?)

    Jailbreaking at least makes the user take affirmative steps to open their device to unverified software, beyond just a confirmation dialog, and limits the process to users who are savvy enough to download and use jailbreaking software. (Or those with savvy friends willing to do this… hopefully said friends will at least make some effort to inform them of the risks.) That’s a speedbump I’d prefer wasn’t eliminated.

  4. Louis Wheeler says:

    Jail-breaking seems to be declining in importance to Apple; new technology will resolve the issue within a few years. There are only two reasons for Jail-breaking an iPhone: unlocking from AT&T and running unapproved applications. Both will be taken care of soon enough. It is really a hardware issue.

    AT&T and Verizon use different mobile technologies, GSM and CDMA. Both are migrating toward LTE. This means that eventually there will be an iPhone which can be run on any US mobile phone ISP, not just AT&T and T-Mobile. The world is mainly on a GSM track, so Apple is better off staying with it and expanding its world market share. AT&T’s backend has been improving, so the quality differences between it and Verizon’s mobile service will vanish. Verizon’s problem, which prevents concurrent use of Data and Voice, will end when it moves to LTE.

    The iPhone’s hardware will greatly improve when it moves to ARM Cortex A9 dual core processors. This means that Apple need, no longer, be so controlling about the iPhone’s computer cycles. Apple had to be, because the iPhone is a mobile phone, after all, not a mobile computing device like the iPod Touch.

    Apple is slowly moving toward reinstalling the Unix permission system on the iPhone’s iOS; the differences between it and Mac OSX will diminish, except for those demanded by hardware. These software changes will make it more difficult to jailbreak an iPhone. When this upgrade happens then Apple can increase the effectiveness of its sand boxing of applications. Hence, Apple can allow unapproved applications to be run in a separate core which decreases the need to jail-break.

    If users want to run apps which greatly lessens their battery life, that is their problem. Apple is likely to block the use of apps when battery capacity drops to a minimum for mobile phone use.

    Apple’s new 500 thousand square foot Data Center in South Carolina will come online at the end of the year. Apple has not been telling us what it intends to use it for. It is possible that Apple will vastly increase its Cloud presence. Many uses, which need native applications now, might work quite happily as web apps. Apple will likely be increasing the categories in the App Store, including an ADULT App store which will block out the kids.

    Many issues which people have with Apple will be resolved soon, but the Anti-Apple pundits will find new issues to complain about.

  5. James says:

    It fascinates me that there are hundreds or maybe thousands of articles saying that you can now jailbreak your iPhone. Except most can’t. Not if you have upgraded to iOS 4 and have never jailbroken in the past. There is still no way to do a jailbreak on a recently purchased iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4.

    I see all of these articles about jailbreaking and it seems that no one mentions this. This leads me to believe that these articles are written by people who have no real knowledge about the subject and haven’t bothered to do a lick of research before posting their article online or in print.

    I’ve been reading about how iPhone jailbreaks are just around the corner for months now. People claim to have done it. Then claim that they are waiting for some future release of iOS 4 before releasing their jailbreak code. First it was 4.0 final. Then 4.0.1. Now 4.1. I strongly suspect that the hacks are not real and the various teams are having real problems with Apple’s latest signing strategy.

    How about an article on the current state of jailbreaking in light of the new legal environment?

  6. James says:

    Not sure what you mean. There have been no 3GS jailbreaks since the beta release of iOS4 despite months of claims to the contrary by the various jailbreak teams. The recent iOS 3.x jailbreaks are “tethered” which means if you power down or reset your phone, you need to be near a computer to restart it. Not exactly something most people will find acceptable.

    My point is that it looks to me that Apple has finally gotten ahead of the jailbreakers and that will make this ruling mostly moot. I think that is the real story. But apparently I’m alone in that.

    Thanks for the response.

  7. John says:

    There are several issues going on here, I hope I get them right.

    The Library of Congress said it is legal to jailbreak your smartphone. This simply means that if you do so you will not be prosecuted by HTC, Motorola, Apple or anyone else. The reason you might have been sued before was that under the DMCA

    you might be sued for copyright violation for modifying software code.

    This does not mean that Apple has to help you jailbreak the phone or that they have to support it after you do so. It doesn’t mean that there is no risk of permanent damage to a phone if you try to jailbreak it. It just means that you are free to attempt this without risk of violation copyright law.

    Unlocking is different though on smartphones you probably have to jailbreak to unlock. The main reason to lock a phone is that the phone company has paid a large subsidy (on the order of $400) and they want to keep you as a customer to earn that money back.

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