In defense of Cydia, the jailbreak app store

Georgia recently wrote an editorial about the frustration she's experienced using Cydia, the jailbreak app store. I'm a long time advocate of jailbreak and the benefits it brings with it. While Cydia may not be perfect, and it definitely isn't the same experience as using Apple's App Store, there are reasons for why it works the way it does, and some huge advantages that come along with it.

When you use an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, you expect your experience to be seamless and intuitive. Apple has long been known for creating devices that are extremely accessible to just about anyone, and work incredibly well with other Apple devices. It's like training wheels or rails. As long as you stay on the track, everything goes exactly as it's supposed to. When you decide to jailbreak, however, you're deciding to go off that Apple approved track, and you have to realize your experience is going to change.

You're not sacrificing much. Your iPhone will still make calls, your iPad will still be able to visit websites, and you can still buy anything you want from the official iTunes App Store, the same as always.

But you're gaining a lot. You can tweak your device so it behaves the way you want it to, including providing quick access to settings and in-app SMS replies, and you can theme it so it looks the way you like, including icons and user interface elements.

A stock iPhone or iPad user is typically after the convenience and ease of use Apple provides. A jailbroken iOS user is typically willing to part with some of that convenience and ease of use in exchange for the additional functionality and control.

Cydia is not the App Store

App Store loading process compared to Cydia

One of the biggest frustrations new jailbreakers have to overcome is Cydia, the jailbreak app store. If you've decide you want more control over your iPhone or iPad, and the ability to install applications and utilities that are not given the Apple stamp of approval, there's a price to be paid. You're classifying yourself as an expert and a power user, and you have to take on the responsibility that comes with it. You've entered a different level and you'll have to check some of your carefully curated expectations at the door.

While Cydia does play host to almost all available jailbreak apps, just as the App Store does for official applications, the similarities pretty much stop there.

The App Store is a simple "search, tap, enter password, and you're done" experience. Cydia is not.

Load some vs. load all

First, Cydia takes a lot longer to load and update. There's a reason for that. Cydia doesn't handle data in the same way the App Store does. The App Store, for example, has chosen to only present you with 25 applications at a time. That saves time up front but if you'd like to view more, you'll need to tell it by tapping to "View more" button and waiting again. And again, each time.

Cydia actually loads all packages at launch and you can page through every single one of them after the data is done loading.

iOS features before Apple with Jailbreak

The App Store also only loads data from one source -- iTunes. Cydia typically loads data from several different repositories. With the App Store, you're limited to that iTunes data source. With Cydia, you can add additional repositories if you wish.

Manually entering and managing repositories is a more complicated process than the App Store's iTunes-only approach, but it means you have access to a wider range of software, including betas. Downloading beta software isn't something the iTunes App Store supports at all.

It means you have access to cutting edge, even bleeding edge technology. If you're willing to do the work, you'll find ways to get iPad-like gestures (and more) on your iPhone, custom widgets and settings toggles in Notification Center, and other enhancements that may not come to Apple's official iOS for months, if ever. (Apple does seem to take inspiration from jailbreak now and then.)

Cydia has long been the breeding ground for amazing apps and utilities. If I have to wait a few more minutes for packages to load or deal with an occasional error or instability, that's a choice I've made and I'm okay with that trade-off.

Fragmentation vs. functionality

The iTunes App Store handles compatibility in a fairly straight forward manner. If your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch isn't able to run the version of iOS an app requires, you can't install that app. Developers list their requirements and if your device can't meet them, you can't have the app.

There's still a lot of crap in the App Store, some buggy apps slip through (including major apps from major developers like Google and Facebook!), and older devices can glitch or crash more on the most cutting edge, most demanding games, but for the most part you don't have to worry about whether or not an app will run on your device.

Cydia does things a bit differently. While some Cydia packages won't allow you to purchase them if they're not 100% compatible, others do not have this safeguard. There are many repositories you can add to Cydia that aren't curated for compatibility at all.

Generally, the ability to download what you want to download when you want to download it is considered a huge benefit of jailbreak. But with great power comes great responsibility, right? In other words, you have to do your homework. You have to check and make sure what you download is compatible with your device and your version of iOS.

(Incompatible or conflicting apps are often the reason for jailbreak headaches, especially for new users.)

Read release notes and app descriptions, and ask in our Jailbreak Apps Forum and your Cydia experience will be a much more enjoyable one.

Payments and process

Even before Apple introduced the App Store, iTunes was one of the biggest online payment systems in the world. Now they can handle credit cards and other forms of transactions in more parts of the world than just about anyone. Because they completely control iTunes and the App Store, they can also make using their payment system incredibly streamlined and simple. You tap a button, you type in a password, and you're done. One login to rule them all.

Cydia doesn't have that luxury. Cydia is dependent on third-party payment systems, namely Amazon and Paypal.

Apple also has a massive cloud infrastructure so your iTunes account can be tied to all the apps you've ever purchased and those apps can be easily restored to any device you own, new or old.

Again, Cydia doesn't have that type of account authentication system, so they've tied into Google and Facebook.

Apple's way is simple, but it's also without choice or option. You use iTunes or you use nothing. With Cydia you can choose to use Facebook or Google for account authentication, and you can choose to use Amazon or Paypal for payment.

Because the App Store is entirely controlled by Apple, they can store your credit card information and credentials and provide that really simple one tap, one password purchasing experience.

Because Cydia doesn't control Facebook, Google, Amazon, or Paypal, it can't store your credit card information and credentials, and so you do have to enter them more places, and more often, than you do with iTunes.

Again, it's the price of operating outside the Apple approved process, and again, the complexity has drawbacks but it also comes with some benefits.

Conclusion

No system is perfect. Not Apple's iTunes App Store and not Cydia, the jailbreak app store. I'm willing to overlook a lot of Cydia's flaws because I benefit from the apps and utilities it delivers. Without Cydia, many developers would have no way to distribute their apps, and to earn enough money to keep developing them.

While I think what Cydia brings to the table greatly outweighs its problem areas, I do think there's room for improvement. My biggest peeve is actually the organizational method Cydia uses. While discoverability on the App Store is a long standing problem, it's not always easy to find something on Cydia either unless you know what you're looking for or have a lot of time to browse through cluttered sections.

Making it easier to find really great apps and utilities is something that would make the initial Cydia experience better and a lot less overwhelming for new users.

If you're a Cydia user, new or long time, what are your thoughts on its usability? What would you most like to see changed or improved?

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