This is a two-part series on jailbreaking. This first installment will discuss the logistics of jailbreaking – how it’s done, what it does to the device and the risks. Part II will discuss jailbreaking from the carrier and OEM’s perspective.
Much has been made recently about the jailbreaking process for Apple’s iPhone (if you’re an Android user, you might call it “rooting”). Jailbreaking refers to the process wherein a user runs software on an iPhone that enables said iPhone to run third-party code, or applications, not sanctioned by Apple or AT&T.
Jailbreaking has been a hotly contested practice since Apple launched the first iPhone. There’s a bevy of legal and technical considerations that get at the heart of not only what a smartphone can do but what “net neutrality” means in a world where carriers are being forced by skyrocketing data demands to come up with new and innovative ways to manage traffic on their networks.
Just this week, Ericsson reported measurements of actual traffic on networks around the world that show global mobile data has nearly tripled in the last year, growing more than 10 times faster than voice. That’s the kind of challenge operators are up against, and it turns out jailbreaking is just one of the many things with which the industry will need to deal in order to ensure that all users have access to working mobile broadband connections.
Jailbreaking vs. Unlocking
To start, it’s probably prudent to note the difference between jailbreaking and unlocking. As was mentioned above, jailbreaking refers to the process of opening an iPhone to run third-party code as opposed to only that code that has been approved by Apple and AT&T. This opens the iPhone up to not only new apps but entirely different user experiences and features. In Android circles, jailbreaking is called “rooting,” because even Android OEMs, as well as the operators that carry their devices, like to block certain things.
Unlocking, on the other hand, is the process of unlocking a phone to run on any network. So for instance, you might unlock your AT&T iPhone 4 to run on T-Mobile’s network. This option is something that might appeal to those in markets overseas, where an iPhone more easily travels to other networks. Here in the United States, GSM and CDMA make unlocking an iPhone 4 a little bit like freeing yourself from a prison only to realize that the prison is on an island in the middle of the ocean.
While T-Mobile USA’s network is also GSM, its 3G operates on a different frequency, so you’d be limited to an EDGE signal if you unlocked your AT&T iPhone and took it over to T-Mobile.
It’s refreshing if a bit astounding that the iPhone is capable of even more when jailbroken than in its natural state. Jailbreaking the iPhone is like throwing a good dose of Android’s best features (i.e. customization, Flash, mobile hot spot) on top of the iPhone 4’s existing depth of offerings.
With the help of Cydia, the jailbreaker’s favored app store, iPhone users can add hundreds of complete UI themes to their phones, lock screen controls (weather, social feeds, headlines), mobile hot spot functionality, Wi-Fi syncing, as well as a host of other features that Apple and AT&T haven’t approved.
That said, the iPhone doesn’t really change all that much after jailbreaking. Users can add and modify the device at their own pace, which means that all apps from the App Store will still work and the all of the native features should still work as well. Of course, in the world of jailbreaking, nothing is ever certain, and for that reason (among others), AT&T and Apple vow to void the warranties for those who choose to spring their devices. How It’s Done This is where things get complicated.
Just recently, in the wake of the Library of Congress’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) ruling, jailbreaking got a lot easier, at least for a few short weeks. The DMCA ruling, which will be discussed in more detail in part three of this series, states that the following was included in exemptions from the statute’s prohibition against circumvention of technology that effectively controls access to a copyrighted work (I’ve annotated it here to apply to what I’m discussing):
Computer programs (Jailbreakme.com) that enable wireless telephone handsets (iPhone) to execute software applications (MyWi), where circumvention is accomplished for the sole purpose of enabling interoperability of such applications, when they have been lawfully obtained (not pirated), with computer programs on the telephone handset.
Jailbreakme.com by Comex is probably the easiest and safest jailbreak to ever hit the mobile Internet, and it sprung to life less than two weeks after the Library of Congress made its ruling. To use the Comex jailbreak, all iPhone users have to do is point their mobile Safari browser to www.jailbreakme.com and follow the on-screen instructions. The process takes all of five to 10 minutes on a Wi-Fi connection.
Take a look at the video below from TechTechManTV to see how it’s done:
So here’s the complicated part. Apparently a hole in Safari allowed hackers to access iDevices through the downloading of corrupt PDF documents. The hole also allowed users to jailbreak their iPhones from the browser-based jailbreakme.com service. Apple responded just 24 hours prior to the writing of this article with a firmware update to iOS (4.0.2) that fixes the security vulnerability associated with viewing malicious PDF files.
What does that mean? It means that if a user updates to iOS 4.0.2, he or she can no longer use jailbreakme.com to jailbreak an iPhone. If the user hasn’t updated to 4.0.2, she can still use jailbreakme.com, but then she’s also running the risk of a rogue hacker directing her to download a “malicious PDF” and stealing all her sensitive data.
The game, of course, does not stop there. Jailbreaking has always been a volley between Apple and rogue developers, wherein developers roll out a jailbreak and Apple rolls out a firmware update that blocks the jailbreak. Presumably, it will continue in this manner ad infinitum. Even if a user were to download 4.0.2, there are ways around it. Here’s a video that shows the manual QuickPwn jailbreak. Hint: It’s just a tad more complicated than the browser-based solution.
So there you have at least the surface details on jailbreaking. It bears repeating that jailbreaking will void both Apple and AT&T’s warranties on the iPhone, and as with any third-party software, it comes with a host of risks, including the worst-case scenario of bricking the iPhone. Stay tuned for Part II in this series, where I take a look at how AT&T and Apple feel about users “taking the law into their own hands.”