Apple's iOS software is designed very specifically, with reliability, ease of use and overall performance at the forefront of design. This is all well and good for most users, but it can lead to glaring absences of functionality.
For instance, it took Apple four major software releases before implementing an app switcher, something that had been a standard feature for years among competitors.
The pace of Apple's upgrade path is great for them – it provides plenty of time to iron out every kink, preventing frustrations from millions of users, and is a big part of why they are dominating the smartphone market. For the more technically-inclined segment of their base, though, the slow pace has been a point of frustration.
In response to that, and to provide a more open, customizable device – you do own your iPhone, after all – a community of software developers have popularized a method of removing software limitations imposed by Apple, allowing consumers with root access to their phones. What many have come to call “Jailbreaking” is simply a way to improve an already stellar device.
Jailbreaking has a nasty, illegal ring to it, and without a doubt, wards many leary people away. But you shouldn't be scared. The process is 100% legal, and because it only alters portions of the phone's software, it is nearly impossible to permanently damage, or “brick”, your phone.
Essentially, jailbreaking allows an iPhone to run apps created outside of Apple's notoriously stringent submission guidelines. Like anything computer-related, this can have both positive and negative implications for you and your phone for a variety of reasons.
Firs,t the positives. Take the issue of Apple's overdue app-switcher. Those who had jailbroken devices were multitasking two full software releases – that's three years, mind you – before Apple implemented a solution for the masses.
Granted, Backgrounder – a popular tweak that allowed any application to run in the background – didn't have the polish an Apple certified app would, it was nonetheless a welcome solution to a problem Apple wasn't ready to address.
What many have come to call “Jailbreaking” is simply a way to improve an already stellar device.
And that's the beauty of jailbreaking: access to a large database of utilities, tweaks, apps and themes, removing the phone from Apple's overprotective approach to software design and placing it firmly in the hand of the device's true owner: you.
So what does a jailbreak actually do? On the user end, it adds an application to your home screen called “Cydia.” Behind the scenes, the jailbreak process does a whole lot more; but to the average citizen, this is the most relevant.
Cydia is the App Store for jailbreak elements. It functions similarly – but not as smoothly – to Apple's own Store, is open to any type of app, and most importantly, provides a simple and familiar way to modify the phone.
One thing to be careful about when using Cydia is security. This app store is by and large unregulated, allowing any package to be uploaded and available for download. That's good for diversity, but also creates the risk of downloading malicious software. It's not an issue to be too concerned with, but should be cause for extra precaution.
There are a lot of reasons to justify jailbreaking an iPhone – some of which are on display in the gallery to the right – but there are a few things to be cautious of, as well.
For instance, expect decreased stability. Apple's software is built so precisely that it rarely crashes or hiccups in any way. With a jailbreak, as with having custom software installed, the phone becomes more prone to crashing. It's not a regular occurrence, but definitely noticeable.
In addition, decreased battery life is a possibility. With several applications and extensions running simultaneously, some of which may not adhere to Apple's strict standards for performance, the battery might not last as long.
There is definitely a balance to be struck. Sacrifice a little of what makes the iPhone so great, but gain a heightened degree of customization. Either way, it's not for everyone, but there are plenty of guides out there for those interested.
I encourage any and all iPhone users to at least give it a try to see what they think. If it doesn't work out, simply restore the phone through iTunes and pretend like it never happened. It's that easy.
Check out the gallery for some useful jailbreak-only apps, and remember to try this process at your own risk.