Jailbreaking your iPhone: The pros and cons

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Last week, the U.S. Librarian of Congress ruled that those who defeat the digital protections of today’s smart-phones for non-infringing purposes can not be threatened by the anti-circumvention portion of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). In short, regardless of how little Apple and other companies may like it, you’re welcome to jailbreak your phone to install third-party apps not offered by the Apple Store. You’re just as free to then unlock your phone for use with another carrier. (Jailbreaking and unlocking are not the same thing. Jailbreaking opens the phone so that you can access and modify portions of the phone that are normally off-limits. Unlocking is a step further that allows you to use it with a different carrier.)

But the question remains: Although you can jailbreak your iPhone with a clear conscience, is it a good idea? Consider these pros and cons.

The bright side

Overseas use: When you use your iPhone in another country, you are subject to data roaming charges. Use your iPhone as you do in its home country, and you’re in for a nasty surprise when your next AT&T statement arrives.

One way to try to reduce those costs is to sign up for one of AT&T’s international plans. Currently, you can purchase 20MB of international usage for $25 a month, 50MB for $60, 100MB for $120, and 200 MB for $200. AT&T recommends using Wi-Fi networks rather than 3G and EDGE but neglects to also mention that it’s far more difficult to find free Wi-Fi abroad than it is in this country because Wi-Fi service is often metered in other countries.

But you can do this far less expensively by jailbreaking and then unlocking your iPhone. When you do, you have the option—as you do with many other mobile phones—to purchase an inexpensive pay-as-you-go SIM card in the country you’re visiting. Pop out the old SIM, plunk in a new one, and you’re in business (using the new card’s local phone number, of course).

Access to forbidden apps and services: The App Store has a remarkable collection of apps and Apple’s slogan, “There’s an app for that,” is close to the mark. But it’s not entirely true. There are things Apple won’t let you do with your iPhone via apps sold at the App Store.

For example, although Steve Jobs can project every element of the iPhone’s interface on a big screen, you can’t. Video output on the iPhone is limited, by default, to select apps. This can be done, however, with a third-party app found via the Cydia app. (Cydia is an application installed when you jailbreak your iOS device that provides access to third-party applications not submitted to/approved by Apple).

Or this: AT&T charges $20 a month for wired tethering—using your iPhone as a modem for your attached computer. For that $20 a month, AT&T provides no extra data, it’s simply granting you the privilege to use the iPhone in this way. Cydia offers a handful of apps that provide this functionality for no additional charge.

Jailbreaking also lets you customize the iPhone’s interface in ways not allowed by Apple. You can, for example, apply themes that change the iPhone’s wallpaper as well as its icons. You can also enable video recording on older phones like the iPhone 3G that don’t natively support it. And, with the installation of SSH, you have the ability to access every part of the iPhone—as you can with your Mac—rather than just those specific areas allowed by Apple.

New life for old phones: When you upgrade from an old iPhone to a new one, that old iPhone becomes, in essence, an iPod touch. You can certainly pass it along to another person via the normal channels—trot down to the local AT&T outlet and sign up for a new two-year contract. But if you jailbreak and then unlock the phone you have the option to use a different carrier (T-Mobile, in this country) and purchase a pay-as-you-go SIM card for it. That unlocked iPhone won’t have the same capabilities as it once did—you can’t use AT&T’s Visual Voicemail, and 3G is out, as T-Mobile uses 3G frequencies that are incompatible with the iPhone.

It’s not difficult: Thanks to a couple of iOS vulnerabilities you can unlock your iOS device simply by visiting jailbreakme.com with your Web browser and sliding a switch that jailbreaks the device and installs a copy of Cydia. There hasn’t been a jailbreak this easy in years. (At least until Apple delivers its promised update that will patch those vulnerabilities.)

The dark side

Who do you trust: When you jailbreak an iOS device using a tool such as the jailbreakme site or one of the tools offered by the iPhone Dev Team, you don’t really know what’s happening to your device. At the end of the jailbreak you should have a more open iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad and a copy of the Cydia app. But what else has gone on in the background?

Up to this point, nothing, it seems. I’ve jailbroken iPhones and iPod touches for years and I’ve yet to have a problem where my data was exploited. But, as they say in the questionable-investment business, past performance is no guarantee of future results. It’s possible that a jailbreak will come along (though not likely from the iPhone Dev Team) that does The Bad Thing.

Your phone is more open to attack: When you jailbreak your device and enable SSH, its more accessible from the outside than it once was. Far too many people jailbreak their phones (or purchase jailbroken and unlocked phones) without then changing its default “alpine” password. And some of those people have suffered in the form of baddies breaking into their devices.

If you’re going to jailbreak your iPhone, do your future self the very big favor of changing its password. Cydia’s home screen provides a Root Password How-To button. Tap it to learn how to change the device’s password.

Your battery life could suffer: Some third-party apps and processes care very little about how much power they pull from your iOS device. If you’re running some of these things on your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, your battery could drain in short order.

Your phone could become less stable: Say what you will about the sometimes-quirky nature of the App Store’s approval process, at least apps have been vetted—hopefully to the point where they shouldn’t take down the entire device when they crash. There’s no guarantee that apps offered via Cydia will be as stable.

Apple and your warranty: In a recently released KnowledgeBase article—which outlines the risks of jailbreaking an iOS device—Apple states:

“It is also important to note that unauthorized modification of the iOS is a violation of the iPhone end-user license agreement and because of this, Apple may deny service for an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch that has installed any unauthorized software.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that if you walk into an Apple Store with a misbehaving and jailbroken iPhone in the hope of getting some help with it, you’ll be politely turned away. In most cases, you can return your jailbroken iPhone to its original condition simply by restoring it in iTunes, thus leaving no evidence. However, this presents an ethical issue. You did something to the iPhone that broke your warranty. You should therefore not expect support for it.

Updates and jailbreaks: Apple hasn’t gone out of its way to issue updates that intentionally damage jailbroken iPhones. (These updates certainly undo jailbreaks, but they haven’t permanently damaged iOS devices—though one update did put jailbroken 2G iPhones out of commission until a subsequent jailbreak became available weeks later). Given the company’s history of largely turning a blind eye to jailbreaking and the added ruling that jailbreaking and unlocking are legal, it’s highly doubtful that Apple will take any deliberate action to decommission jailbroken phones.

At the same time, Apple’s just as unlikely to spend much time thinking about the effect an update may have on jailbroken iOS devices. It’s possible that an update will come along that does threaten a jailbroken or unlocked iOS device. And that means that those with these jailbroken devices must be vigilant about how and when they update their gear. They will certainly want to hear about the experiences of others before updating, as well as possibly wait for a jailbreak or unlock that’s compatible with that update.

Christopher Breen is a senior editor with Macworld.

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