AusGamers delves into the mysterious art of jailbreaking - what is it? How do you do it? What are the advantages?
WARNING! This is for informational purposes only. Proceed at your own risk. AusGamers does not recommend you do this, ever. Even reading it is probably bad for you.
Updated 2009-06-30 to cover jailbreaking OS 3.0. The iPhone 3GS can currently not be jailbroken; this article is currently useful only to iPhone 3G owners.
The iPhone launched in Australia last year to much acclaim. The touch-screen was large and responsive; the User Interface well designed and fun to use; the web browser was second to none and the mail client is pretty good too. Almost overnight, 3G internet on a mobile phone for many users transformed from a cruel joke to a practical solution while away from the desktop.
A new hardware revision (the iPhone 3GS) was released in June, and one of our major Australian carriers responded with a temporary price drop that has seen renewed interest in the iPhone platform. But among all these happy users, for some of us there is a down side to the iPhone: it is a “closed” platform.
The PC is a platform that many of us hold dear. It is also a platform whose capabilities are limited solely by the skill and the imagination of those who use it. Programmers can create whatever software they like on the PC, and there's no one to say whether that idea is good or not except for the people who use the software.
The iPhone is a different beast. When you receive your iPhone you start with a small selection of software provided by Apple, and the “App Store” - an easy way to find new software for your iPhone.
There is a lot of software too – well over 10,000 applications ranging from the incredibly simple “flashlight” application that simply turns your screen white so you can use your phone to illuminate your keys after a late night out, to commercial 3D games comparable in quality to those found on the PlayStation Portable or Nintendo DS.
But look carefully at the App Store and you will notice some applications are strangely absent or limited in functionality. Apple's included mail application is simple enough to use but quite minimal in its functionality, yet you will not find an alternative on the App Store. The aforementioned Flashlight program whose sole purpose is to emit light, does not have a brightness control. And software for “tethering” - the act of using your mobile phone to provide internet connectivity to a laptop – is absent altogether.
The “App Store” - as well designed as it is – is also how Apple exerts control over the iPhone platform. If you write a piece of software that you want to distribute to iPhone users, Apple has the ability to determine if that application should be permitted or rejected. And so far, there's been a number of applications that have been rejected.
As is often the case in computing though, if one group tries to block something off another group tries to tear the wall right back down again. In the case of the iPhone, tearing the wall down means providing a mechanism to install applications other without using the App Store in a process that has come to be known as “Jailbreaking”.
So what exactly is Jailbreaking?
The iPhone at its heart is a computing device running a UNIX operating system with Apple's frameworks layered on top. On the PC, most people when working on their own computer either utilise or at least have access to the operating system's “superuser”: the account that can do anything with the computer's hardware. On Windows this account is typically called “Administrator”, and in UNIX systems such as Mac OSX the account is called “root”.
When you receive your iPhone from the store you do not have access to the superuser account, and if you just use the phone as Apple specifies you never will. The core aspect of jailbreaking is to gain access to the “superuser” account on the iPhone, and from there the ability to install whatever applications are desired.
Is this just about “pirating” software? Is Jailbreaking legal?
Some readers may be comparing my description of jailbreaking to “mod chips” for games consoles, which typically are used to circumvent copyright protection schemes and download commercial games for free. There are a number of key difference that make the comparison invalid:
Developing software for a console is time consuming and requires specialist knowledge; as such there is almost no software (XBMC being perhaps the most notable exception) developed for consoles that are not commercial games.
By comparison, developing for the iPhone simply requires a Mac and a desire to learn. There are literally thousands of free applications for the iPhone available both within and outside the App Store.
While console manufacturers have the same power as Apple (you can not release software for a console without the manufacturer's approval), they do not typically reject software just because it is similar to their own. Nintendo will not stop you if you want to make a poor rip-off of Mario (or even something better), but Apple have shown they will reject any application that duplicates the functionality their own software.
The question of legality is a harder one to answer. Apple on their behalf have released a press statement detailing that they believe jailbreaking is illegal and constitutes copyright infringement. On the other hand, reverse-engineering for purposes of interoperability has long been an exception for acts that would otherwise be illegal.
I asked a lawyer for their opinion on this issue and was told that until such a case is brought before the courts it is difficult to say exactly what the result would be. What we do know is that despite Jailbreaking being wide-spread, there is not a single case of Apple filing suit against an iPhone user. Its impossible to say for sure, but it seems likely at this point that Apple will try to fight jailbreaking with technical changes in future firmware revisions rather than by suing its customer-base.
What about my warranty?
Apple will of course tell you that any modifications void your warranty; but the truth is that modifications only void your warranty if the modification contributes to the failure. Unfortunately in computing it is often hard (especially for us lay-people without specialised tools) to say exactly what caused a hardware failure.
Jailbreaking is a software modification; if Apple were reasonable there is no way it should void your warranty just as your PC hardware warranty is valid no matter what software you choose to install.
There is a bright side though; jailbreaking is fully reversible using the built-in iTunes recovery feature. The recovery feature is the equivalent of doing a fresh re-install of Windows – it wipes the iPhone's solid-state drive clean and then installs a fresh new copy of the software, removing the jailbreak functionality in the process.
So how do you jailbreak?
Well, unfortunately, we received some legal advice after publishing this article that indicated that it probably wasn't in our best interests to keep it up.
We'll try to put up some more information about this later, but the short version is that Australian law appears to actually amazingly deny us the right to tell you how you can get the most out of a product you actually own.
If you think this is bullshit, like any sane person that doesn't own or represent a big multi-million dollar company, then we strongly recommend that you join Electronic Frontiers Australia.