It’s been almost 30 years since Apple’s legendary sci-fi Super Bowl commercial introducing the Mac, in which a lone renegade (read: Apple) stands up to a totalitarian state (read: IBM). Today, though, Apple (AAPL) is the tech monolith, with a business model built on ingenious hardware and software design, but also on keeping tight control over the software ecosystem that determines what users can do with their Apple devices. Nowhere is that more in evidence than the App Store for iPhones and iPads. The company has been known to reject third-party apps that raise privacy issues, or that are politically controversial. The implicit deal in buying an iPad or iPhone is that you’ll get the Apple ingenuity and ease and beauty in exchange for the fetters.
Unless, that is, you jailbreak. On Tuesday, a team of hackers calling themselves the Evad3rs released a jailbreak for Apple’s newest iPhone and iPad operating system, iOS 6.1. Jailbreaking installs a custom version of iOS—its firmware—that allows users to download and install apps that aren’t available through the App Store. Jailbreaking is simply a matter of downloading a program that guides you in customizing your firmware. With each new generation of iPhones and iPads, it gets harder to write new jailbreaks, because with each new version of the firmware Apple keeps patching the holes in the code that hackers use, creating a unending game of cat and mouse between the company and the jailbreakers.
The jailbreak released this week was the first major release since last May, and works for all of Apple’s current products (intermediate jailbreaks were for specific devices and operating systems only). Hence the jubilation that greeted the news on the Web.
Should you do it? That is between you and your techno-spiritual adviser. But here are some facts about jailbreaking.
For one thing, it is not illegal, at least not with an iPhone (iPads are, for the time being, a gray area). Apple clearly does not love the practice, as evinced by the fact that it keeps making it harder to do. But there’s no legal action it can take. Jailbreaking is not to be confused with unlocking an iPhone—altering its settings so it can work with more than one cell phone carrier. That is illegal.
Nor is jailbreaking permanent. If you don’t like it, you can simply restore the phone’s factory settings and you’re back in the comfort of Apple’s walled garden. (It’s as easy as choosing “restore iPhone” in iTunes with your phone plugged in.)
Here’s what jailbreaking gets you:
• There are apps that allow for quicker access to text messages or phone settings like airplane mode or location services or force-quitting out of programs from the lock screen, rather than having to swipe and then navigate menus and submenus.
• You can create custom gestures for the phone beyond the basic swipe and pinch: You can slide in from any corner to activate functions and you can customize the volume and home buttons to launch specific apps or functions.
• You can turn your phone into a wireless hotspot without the monthly charge you would otherwise have to pay.
• You can change the texting function so that you can quick-compose a message while running other applications, and so that you can, with the tap of an onscreen button, elect to respond to a text with a phone call.
• There are anti-theft apps that take a photo of the user any time someone enters an incorrect password.
• There are anti-surveillance apps that disguise one’s number on outgoing calls.
• An app called Winterboard lets you customize the look of your screen.
You can peruse the offerings on the website for Cydia, the app store for jailbroken iPhones—there used to be multiple jailbroken app stores, but they’ve consolidated. Some of the apps there are free; others are not, since, for all their pirate appeal, many of the apps on Cydia are meant to make money for their developers. Some of those developers probably tried to get their apps in Apple’s official store but were rejected for one reason or another.
How do you do it? Sites like iClarified.com have a wizard that helps you determine the jailbreak you need, and provides you with step-by-step pictorial instructions on completing your jailbreak. The process is fairly straightforward and involves backing up your phone with iTunes, then booting your phone in recovery mode, and running software available directly from the development team of hackers who created it at evasi0n.com.
The biggest hurdle may be your work firewall. Some corporate IT departments—such as Bloomberg’s—block Evasi0n and Cydia. So jailbreaking might have to happen at home.