What Is Jailbreaking an iPhone?

Jailbreaking is a growing trend among iPhone users who want to add more functionality to there phone. Jailbreaking is a method of altering an iPhone so that third-party applications and software can run on the phone, and otherwise locked features can be used. Jay Freeman, the founder of Cydia, an app store for jailbroken iPhones, estimates that over 10% of all iPhones have been jailbroken.

Jailbreaking may sound like a complicated process, because it is essentially a form of hacking. The hackers who first found out how to jailbreak an iPhone had to be very skilled computer experts. However, they have developed easy to use applications which make jailbreaking your phone simple and straightforward, and possible for practically any user.

The terms “jailbreaking” and “hacker” conjure up images of underground, outlaw computer geniuses who are illegally hacking into computers. Apple has long been against jailbreaking and even tried to declare that it was illegal in early 2009 (source). However, an extension to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) passed by Congress in July 2010 explicitly declares jailbreaking to be legal (source). Jailbreaking does void your warranty, but Apple cannot pursue any sort of legal action against a user who jailbreaks their iPhone. If you need service from the people at Apple, you can often just restore your phone to the factory default software, effectively undo the jailbreak (which is only a software hack), and they can’t really tell that a phone has ever been jailbroken.

The whole need for jailbreaking comes from the closed nature of Apple’s App Store. In order to control the user experience, Apple heavily regulates and censors the content that can go on the iPhone. The Android OS, in contrast, is completely open source, so developers can write apps to do anything they want, or can even rewrite the whole operating system. Apple’s style means that they can ensure that no bad apps are written for the iPhone, but it also means that apps that Apple doesn’t like can’t make it into the App store either.

For example, tethering is a feature which allows a user to allow a laptop to get internet access through a phone. The iPhone has the technical ability to tether, but it is locked down because AT&T does not want to offer that service (it uses too much bandwidth). One of the features that you can get through an app installed on a jailbroken iPhone is tethering. You could also get multi-tasking long before Apple introduced it as a feature of the iOS.

There are a variety of different reasons to jailbreak an iPhone. The most common is, of course, simply to get functionality from an app that cannot be bought through the App store. Some people may jailbreak just to make a statement about how they feel about the closed nature of Apple’s App store (admittedly, not many people actually care about this, but it’s a huge issue among geeks). If you want to jailbreak, there are a couple of ways to do so. Most of the ways involve downloading an app on a computer and transferring it to your iPhone. Recently, a site called JailBreakMe.com has exploited a venerability with PDFs to allow 1-click jailbreaking of your iPhone. This is by far the easiest way to jailbreak; however it will stop working when Apple or Adobe patches the security venerability. (Ironically, there is a security patch for it now – but you have to jailbreak to get it).

Jailbreaking is generally a safe process, however many people choose not to do so because it leaves them in a perpetual cat-and-mouse game with Apple. Whenever Apple introduces a new version of the iOS, it breaks your jailbreak and forces you to re-jailbreak after you install the new OS. For the determined user, this is a small price to pay for the additional functionality, however many users opt not to bother with it.