Anyone who owned an iPhone several years ago probably heard about, and maybe even had, an iPhone jailbreak. Among tech enthusiasts, iOS jailbreaking was considered an essential step in owning an iPhone. This was especially true in the early iterations of the iPhone when features we take for granted these days, like changing your wallpaper, were not offered in iOS. Now, iOS has matured to the point where jailbreaking is difficult and, increasingly, unnecessary. But, are we ready to go as far as to say iOS jailbreaking is dead?
Dead is a seriously strong word. Even Blackberry isn’t dead… Yet. However, it does appear jailbreaking is heading down that road. To understand where jailbreaking sits today, let’s look at where it began.
The Early Days
iOS jailbreaking began as the desire to simply use an iPhone on a network other than AT&T. A teenager named George Hotz (aka geohot) managed to scramble the code of the iPhone’s baseband processor and open up his iPhone to any carrier network. After that, the iPhone jailbreak evolved dramatically. Some of the most basic features we expect in iPhones today began as jailbroken features. The first game on an iPhone, before the App Store even launched, was a jailbroken app. Users were able to change their ringtones several years before Apple allowed users to install custom ringtones. Then came Cydia and iOS jailbreaking went to the next level.
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Cydia was an alternative to the official App Store and allowed users with jailbroken iPhones to install apps and tweaks that Apple had not yet allowed inside their walled garden. The creator of Cydia, Jay Freeman (aka Saurik), claimed in 2008 that Cydia was installed on 10% of all iPhones on the market. This shows just how popular jailbreaking was at the time. Apple had created a powerful handheld device but the iPhone was not being used to its full potential. People in the jailbreaking community saw the potential in the iPhone. In fact, without some of their hard work in the early generations of the iPhone, it’s hard to imagine what iOS would look like today.
iOS Jailbreaking Today
Motherboard recently did a great piece with some of the major players in the jailbreaking community. Currently, there are no public jailbreaks for the latest version of iOS. The landscape of jailbreaking has changed a lot from the days of installing live wallpapers on the iPhone 3GS. Now, jailbreakers are seen as valuable security analysts. Many of the best minds in the jailbreaking community now have jobs at tech firms. Those that aren’t employed by companies like Apple work freelance, selling their exploits to security firms for as much as $1 million. There’s serious money in breaking through Apple’s ever-increasing security which makes publishing iOS jailbreaks for free not as attractive as it was back in the glory days of 2008.
Saurik, who many call the “Father of Jailbreaking,” left a comment on Reddit that was a scathing criticism of the state of jailbreaking. He says that iOS 10 jailbreaks aren’t stable and reliable. Saurik also says the iOS 10 jailbreak cycle was, “a debacle. He also points out that the need to jailbreak with modern iOS versions is almost non-existent. The whole reason that jailbreaking became popular was because Apple had left out many desired features that users wanted. Now iOS is a mature ecosystem with tons of features and millions of apps that can complete almost any task imaginable.
An Italian hacker, Todesco, was one of the more prominent minds in the jailbreaking community. However, he has even announced his retirement from working on public iPhone jailbreak releases. With Todesco out of the picture and many of his counterparts taking jobs with security firms or tech companies; it would appear iOS jailbreaking has taken its last gasps.
The Future of iOS / iPhone jailbreak
Of course, iOS jailbreaking isn’t dead until the dedicated community agrees that it is, in fact, dead. There is still a small but dedicated jailbreaking community active on forums and social media channels like Reddit. While many will agree that the main purpose of jailbreaking was to fill feature holes left by Apple; there are others who also simply want to prove that Apple’s ecosystem is still vulnerable to their hacking skills. There may be a new hero rise in the jailbreaking community and create an efficient jailbreak for new versions of iOS. Still, the question then becomes, will they be able to resist the money? Can they convince themselves to release the jailbreak publicly for no payment other than the appreciation of the community? Or, will they be convinced to sell their vulnerability to a security firm? Perhaps they will take a job at Apple and bring their jailbreak method with them. It would be hard to fault someone for taking the money. After all, discovering and exploiting a vulnerability in iOS is not easy. It’s essentially a full time job and public jailbreaks don’t exactly put food on the table for the hackers that create them.
I’m not prepared to come out and say, definitively, that the iPhone jailbreak is dead. However, the need for jailbreaking is almost non-existent at this point. iOS has come a long way and the jailbreaking community can take a lot of credit for that. I still have fond memories of my jailbroken iPhone 3GS and learning about jailbreaking as a teenager was what helped get me interested in technology beyond simply what companies like Apple were willing to sell me over the counter. We may yet see a rise from the ashes for jailbreaking, but I won’t be holding my breath.