Maybe you've heard about "jail breaking" an iPhone. Are you wondering if your iPhone is in some sort of prison from which it needs springing? What is jailbreaking, exactly?
In this article I'll describe what jailbreaking is and why you might or might not want to do such a thing to your iPhone.
Walled-Garden of Eden?
All of Apple's "iDevices" (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, and Watch) live in a so-called "walled-garden" ecosystem. That means you can install apps from Apple's curated App Store -- and from nowhere else.
Apple does not allow iDevice owners to install just any old app they want. Apple's App Store is highly curated, meaning apps must be submitted to Apple by developers and it must pass considerable scrutiny before being approved and placed in the App Store. You cannot install an app directly from the developer (there are some exceptions for beta testers). It must be installed from the App Store.
Why? Several reasons, actually.
Security is a big reason. Apple doesn't want malware in their App Store, so Apple scans and tests each app before placing it in the App Store. Apple's track record for finding and eliminating unsafe apps is pretty good. When you download an app for your iPhone, you can be pretty sure it's safe. It may be a stupid app and have costly in-app purchases (many games), but it won't contain malware.
Another big reason is the almighty Dollar. Apple gets a hefty 30% cut of all app sales. There's a ton of so-called "freemium" apps. These apps are free to download and use in a basic way, but advanced use often requires an in-app purchase -- of which Apple skims a tidy 30%.
But Wait, There's More
If Apple limited their app screening scrutiny to just eliminating malware and nothing more, there would be less criticism of their process. But it doesn't stop there. In its quest to execute their vision of the perfect app store, Apple placed additional restrictions on developers.
For example, Apple never permitted nudity on the App Store (which is fine), but so-called "bikini apps" were ok -- basically photo albums of attractive women in skimpy bathing wear. Then in early 2010 Apple summarily removed them with no recourse for developers and no alternatives for customers. Whatever you think about pictures of women wearing bikinis is irrelevant. The point is that Apple can and does exercise its unilateral editorial control over a device that you own and with no recourse.
You cannot install a bikini app (or many other categories of prohibited apps) on your phone because Apple doesn't want you to. Many would call that arrogant, puritanical, and nannyish.
The great majority of curating Apple does really is for the objective betterment of the App Store, but some folks don't like living within those walls. In essence, being told what to do.
What if you could download apps from some other repository besides Apple's App Store? A repository that allows bikini apps and other content that Apple disapproves of. There are hacks available that break through Apple's walled-garden of Eden and allows you to roam the Earth, as it were, free of Apple's parochial viewpoint. That's what jailbreaking is all about.
Each time Apple updates iOS, they patch whatever vulnerability that was discovered that allowed the previous iOS version to be jailbroken. It's a cat and mouse game that's been going on since shortly after the first iPhone was released in 2007. Usually it takes the jailbreak community anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to figure out how to jailbreak the latest iOS release. Then they publicize the details, making the jailbreak available to anyone who wants it.
Jailbreaking is waning these days because people who want ultimate control over their phones, geeks mainly, buy Android models. jailbreaking was more popular years ago when Android phones were still fairly primitive. But today there are top performing flagship models that run Android.
What might jailbreak apps let you do that Apple-approved apps cannot? The most popular category is tweaking iOS - the iPhone operating system - by adding functionality not included by Apple. For example, iPhone to this day doesn't let you arrange the screen entirely the way you want. You can rearrange the icons, but they're still all clustered top-down. You can't have an empty spot or row to separate your apps. That's a little thing, but it's annoying. Many years now after the iPhone's release and we still can't arrange icons the way we want. There's a jailbreak app for that. Does your favorite app have a an unfortunate name that you'd like to change? Can't rename it unless you jailbreak. Would you like to squeeze more icons on the screen, say 5 across? There's a jailbreak app for that. And the list goes on and on.
But there is a dark side. Because jailbreaking lets you download apps outside the App Store, you do run a somewhat greater risk of downloading malware. That risk is mitigated somewhat because the big players in the jailbreak ecosystem police themselves pretty well. Jailbreaking is big business for the major players in that ecosystem so it's in their best interest to keep it as safe as possible.
The main and enabling app you get with jailbreaking is called Cydia. CLICK HERE to read more on why it's called Cydia, it's pretty funny.
Cydia is the framework that jailbreak apps run under and is your gateway to the world of non-Apple-approved apps. Using Cydia, you'll browse through multiple "app stores" called Repositories, or simply repo for short. If you stick to the major, well-known repos that are included with Cydia, then you'll generally be safe. It's like shopping at stores that you are familiar with and not a dumpy flea market across town.
But Should I do It?
If you have to ask, then no, you should not. Most folks have a fine iPhone experience without jailbreaking their device. There are a lot of caveats to jailbreaking that you need to be aware of that are outside the scope of this article. But for those that like to experiment and feel safe travelling the world without a guide, then jailbreaking opens that world to you.
In general, I'd recommend against it. But it's there for those that want it.