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Jailbreaking your iPhone is now legal, but should you?

By  Aug 6, 2010

Topics: Gadgets & Computer Hardware

Jailbreaking phones such as the iPhone is now allowable in the US according to the US Library of Congress. However, is this something you really want to do? I’ll give you my take on the pros and cons of jailbreaking your iPhone so you can decide if it’s right for you.

On July 26, 2010, the US Library of Congress said it was legal to circumvent a phone’s software or firmware in order to enable lawfully obtained software or in order to connect to an authorized wireless telecommunications network. In short, jailbreaking your phone is no longer a violation of law.

What exactly is jailbreaking as it relates to Apple products? The term jailbreak refers to altering the iPhone Operating System to allow access to restricted features of the operating system as well as allowing installation of non-Apple approved applications. Unlocking refers to the process of allowing the phone to access other cellular networks and alters the phone's baseband firmware.

Apple has been a staunch opponent of allowing tech savvy users to alter their devices and modify its iPhone operating system. As a result, an underground network of websites, developers and hackers have formed to help users modify their iPhone’s operating system, unlock it to allow its use on other cellular networks, and provide another app store (Cydia) for purchasing applications not approved by Apple for sale in the iTunes app store.

Curious about what it takes to jailbreak your iPhone? Here is a simplified overview:

  1. Connect your activated iPhone via the USB cable and backup your device through iTunes.
  2. Download jailbreaking software specifically for your device and the iPhone OS. There are several out there such as Spirit, QuickPwn, and Pwnage Tool, etc. Two key things to note: First, jailbreaking and unlocking your phone have traditionally been done with the same tool. Recent changes in unlocking have made it more difficult and as a result many of the software tools will now only do one of these tasks. Be sure to download the right tool for the job. Secondly, you’ll want to be sure to download the tool that will work for your version of the iPhone OS. The software fixes for new iPhone firmware versions lag behind the newest release from Apple as the hackers need time to create the jailbreak.
  3. Depending on the tool, you may need to download the original iPhone firmware version you are trying to jailbreak.
  4. Run the jailbreak or unlock software tool and follow the instructions. Your device may reboot several times depending on the software tool. Some of the tools require your iPhone to be put into DFU (Device Firmware Mode) mode, which requires pressing, holding and releasing the power and home buttons in sequence for a series of seconds. It can be tricky getting your phone into and out of this DFU mode.
  5.  Your iPhone should now be jailbroken and also have the Cydia app installed for downloading iPhone apps and system packages not in the app store.

A complete tutorial on jailbreaking your iPhone is beyond the scope of this blog. Enter "jailbreak iPhone x.x.x" (where x.x.x is the version of the iPhone OS you want to jailbreak) into your search engine to find links to additional resources and more information. Some examples:

The pros:

  • You now have access to many iPhone apps that were not allowed in the iTunes app store. Several of these provide new features not available in the standard OS or Apple approved apps. However, many of the really powerful features such as multitasking, customized wallpaper, folders, video, cut & paste, and MMS texting have been added to newer versions of the iPhone OS.
  • You have access to undocumented APIs. This is a developer feature most people will not take advantage of but, for developers it’s a nice bonus. For example, once your iPhone is jailbroken you can access video out features of the phone and capture or project the screen video. However, developers still cannot include these undocumented APIs in their apps if they want them approved for the iTunes apps store. Also, Apple can at any time remove these undocumented APIs leaving the developer with apps that may no longer run correctly.
  • Unlocking provides the ability to switch carriers, but remember iPhones use GSM cellular technology so you can only switch to another GSM-based carrier. In the US, those carriers are AT&T and T-Mobile.
  • You can become a part of the underground, anti-Apple iPhone movement and explore new features and break free of Apple's restrictions. 
Example of ScreenRecorder app available in Cydia store:

The cons:

  • Possible exposure to security risks and viruses. The only viruses reported so far on iPhones have been jailbroken and with no policing of apps outside the iTunes app store, your phone can be much more susceptible to security risks.
  • It will void your phone warranty and disqualify your ability to access Apple customer support. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean Apple has to support your modified phone--and they have already publicly stated they will not!  
  • Jailbroken versions lag behind version releases from Apple. Once jailbroken, you become reliant on the hackers to crack and produce an updated jailbroken version of the new release.  So, how quickly a jailbroken version is made available is up to the hackers and their ability to solve any new anti-jailbreaking techniques Apple may chose to implement.
  • Constantly making sure you don't auto-update to new firmware through iTunes. If you forget and update your phone through iTunes your phone will no longer be jailbroken or worse yet, may not work correctly. Also, new versions of iTunes may also cause problems for a jailbroken phone, so you need to keep track of the correct version of iTunes you are using to sync your iPhone.
So, should you jailbreak your iPhone? I'd say if you have an old phone and you're technically savvy, go for it. If it's your only cell phone and you rely on it for stable daily use, it's probably not a very good idea. Personally I do have an old iPhone 3G and have explored my inner geek by jailbreaking it. My iPhone 4 that I use every day? No way!

Does the fact that jailbreaking is now legal make you more or less likely to do it? Are you worried at all about still violating your phone's warranty?

If you're curious about all the new features in the new iPhone 4 and iOS4, check out our upcoming books: My iPhone 4th Edition and  Using iPhone.