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So is iPhone Jailbreaking Now a Good Thing?

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?