Is there a future for jailbreak?

There was a time when power users simply had to jailbreak their iPhone as a matter of necessity. If you wanted to get any serious work done with iOS, you had to jailbreak. If you wanted apps, if you wanted copy and paste, if you wanted multitasking, if you wanted proper notifications and Lock screen info, if you wanted Wi-Fi sync, if you wanted any number of features users of other platforms took for granted, you had to jailbreak.

But iOS has evolved. Year after year, Apple has added features, sometimes copied them directly from jailbreak. And each time, the functionality gap closes, the reasons to jailbreak become fewer, and the number of users who jailbreak become fewer along with it.

iOS 5 was the turning point for many. Could iOS 6 be the final straw? Could we be approaching a future where Jailbreak has little or no legitimate place in most iPhone and iPad users lives?

The good of the many vs the good of the few -- or the you

User experience matters when it comes to mobile experience

Almost all the big ticket innovations that Apple has brought to iOS, jailbreak brought first. Prior to iOS 5, to pick but one recent example, if you wanted real, unobtrusive, notifications, you had to jailbreak and install apps like IntelliscreenX and LockInfo. MobileNotifier had a strong influence on the way that Notification Center handles notifications today.

With iOS 5 Apple introduced Notification Center. And they did them in a way that catered to the mainstream. There are no difficult settings to weed through or overwhelming menus and options like you find in LockInfo or IntelliscreenX. Is Notification Center perfect? Certainly not. But it's easy. And that's what matters to the majority of consumers.

IntelliscreenX and LockInfo do far more, far better than Notification Center, but to many former jailbreakers, Notification Center does enough, good enough, that they'll stop jailbreaking and just make do.

Not everyone, but a significant number of people.

Innovation at the speed of freedom

Innovation and jailbreak for iPhone and iPad

Apple only releases one new version of iOS a year (or 16 months last year). While they have interim updates in between, those are adding increasingly fewer new features, and never add major, system-level changes. Jailbreak, by contrast, never stops. New tweaks and new utilities are always being developed and released.

That means jailbreak is typically faster at discovering and delivering new features. While the masses may not know they need a feature or function until Apple gives it to them, power users typically want it before Apple can or is willing to give it to them. To keep to the same example, jailbreak users had LockInfo and IntelliscreenX and Mobile Notifier long before Notification Center shipped.

Whether this year will bring with it a newly designed Home screen or other major new feature, odds are it really won't be that ground breaking to jailbreak users.

In this aspect, jailbreak will continue to be a breeding ground for many developers that want to push the limits of what the iPhone and iPad are capable of. They'll bring the future to us today.

But again, the amount of users who need a cutting edge level of functionality is less now than it used to be. Apple has taken care of the low hanging fruit and for the most part, only niche-needs remain to be filled. That means less people will go through the trouble to jailbreak because it's increasingly not worth it for them. Good enough is good enough and perfect isn't worth the trouble it takes to get it.

The rejection objection

Rejected apps find a home in Cydia

Many developers that find themselves rejected by Apple for one reason or another have used Cydia, the jailbreak app store, as a way to distribute their apps. Whether Apple rejected an app because they manipulated the iOS file system, or because it duplicated -- and sometimes improved! -- the functionality of a built in app, or because it hooked into and changed a part of the system Apple simply doesn't want changed, Cydia (or another jailbreak app store) remains the only way to get certain apps.

However, while there are apps that Apple will never let onto the App Store under current policies, Apple is rejecting less apps than they used to. Often there will be some neutered version of an app that does something similar, and unless a user really needs a specific prohibited feature, they'll increasingly suck it up and make do with the App Store. Again, good enough.

Themes and toggles and tweaks, oh my

Jailbreak-hero-iphone-2

Even though Apple adds more and more native functionality with each major revision of iOS, there will always be a niche group of advanced users that want to customize and fine tune their experience beyond what Apple allows. This holds true for rooting and homebrew communities on other, more "open" platforms as well. For some of us, there's just never enough. We'll customize and flash down to the ROM level if we can.

For the iPhone and iPad, whether it's a new look for the Home screen and icons, fast access to Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or other Settings, or system extensions for Notification Center, folders, Siri, or more, there's almost no chance Apple can will meet these needs, especially not any time soon.

These jailbreakers are still jailbreaking, and likely will for a longtime to come.

Illegitimate interests

Jailbreak-iPhone-iPad-hero

While we have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to app theft here on iMore, we simply can't talk jailbreak without facing the reality that some segment of the user base jailbreaks simply to steal apps. Those are the users that will probably continue to jailbreak regardless of how much functionality Apple adds. They could care less. It doesn't matter how nice Starbucks is inside if all someone wants to do is steal coffee.

It's a sad reality but one that exists on almost every platforms, mobile or otherwise.

Those who jailbreak to steal aren't the ones that keep Cydia going. If they're stealing App Store apps, they're most likely not paying for jailbreak apps. The users who support jailbreak open their wallets to support the jailbreak community -- they like paying for apps and themes and tweaks because they know that's how they'll get more of them. Same for app store apps (and coffee!)

Some users will continue to jailbreak to steal apps, but if that's ever the only reason left to jailbreak, the community would likely stop looking for exploits, creating tools, and making great jailbreak software. It's a dead end.

(Considering Cydia is still chugging along, arguably better than ever, it's a good sign that there are still many users out there who jailbreak for legitimate reasons.)

A tale of two systems

iPhone 4S siri hero

As iOS becomes more refined and functional, certain users who used to jailbreak find it no longer worth their effort, and they either settle into, or settle for, stock. However, Apple will never be able to please everyone. In fact, pleasing everyone is the opposite of Apple's philosophy. Apple will continue to make the iPhone that Tim Cook and Jony Ive and Phil Schiller and Scott Forstall want to own and use. That will suit the mainstream just fine, but it will continue to leave many other users wanting more or different.

There may be less casual jailbreakers now than there were before, and there may be less reason for average users to jailbreak now than before. Good enough may be good enough for many.

But not for everyone, and not for those for whom better or perfect is a very personal, sometimes changing target.

iOS may make more and more users happy, but jailbreak will remain, giving advanced levels of control and customization, and allowing users to "beta test" the future. The users that will be interested in doing that are the tinkerers, hackers, and mobile enthusiasts. These are the users that see a new piece of tech and have to have it or want to find a way to get their current device to duplicate another platform's functionality before Apple decides they can have it. While this will always be the case for some, it isn't the case for many.

You can never predict the future. Apple or the carriers could crack down on something that drives more users to jailbreak again. A breakthrough new feature could appear on a competing platform and jailbreak could once again offer it well in advance of Apple. But it will never be the same as the heady days when you had to jailbreak just to run apps, or just to use an iPhone outside the U.S.

Jailbreak under iOS 5 is not what it was under iOS 4 and the same will most likely hold true with every iteration of iOS to come. As more features are added and the needs of many would-be jailbreakers are met, the numbers will continue to dwindle and users that once swore by jailbreak will find themselves weighing out whether or not jailbreak holds value for them anymore. At some point, iOS will cross the threshold of being good enough for some jailbreakers to being good enough for many.

And that's okay. Because the jailbreakers who are left will be just as passionate and just as needy as always. There may be less as a percentage of the total user base, but those who remain, who still want jailbreak, will really want it. They'll need it.

And that -- sense of shared purpose more than any number of people -- is what makes a community.

iMore senior editor from 2011 to 2015.

49 Comments
  • I jailbroke my iPad 2, and there wasn't anything there I wanted, so I went back to stock.
  • Until the federal gov steps in and stops AT&T and others from double-dipping with services such as tethering, I will always have a need for jailbreaking. MyWi is a definite necessity. SBsettings is also another good reason why I jailbreak.
  • Will always jailbreak fake location 3 g unrestricter miwi 5 colum 5 row toggles hide apps clear all those dumb email address remembered there are more but imbon the train
  • I think you missed something that is a reason why I don't bother with it much these days. No timely jailbreaks. Sure, you shouldn't upgrade but sometimes you have no choice if you need to restore or swap phones.
  • That's what happened to me. Screwed up my phone fiddling with the filesystem, so had to restore to 5.1. I know it was my fault. Just saying I didn't update until I had no choice. Now I'm stuck until they jailbreak it again. Sucks. I miss my scrolling dock and blank first page.
  • Not to mention breaking the 12 app folder barrier
  • the new redsn0w update will let u downgrade to 5.0.1
  • Switched to an iPhone from webOS and, while I'm happy with the 4S, I miss the freedom of messing around with themes and the like in my Pre and TouchPad. Now I'm locked in with iOS 5.1 waiting for the option to jailbreak it.
  • The only reason I jailbreak my iDevices is because of the further functionality I could get with jailbreak.
  • If you think there's no reason to jailbreak, you haven't looked hard enough at the options available for your device, that Apple doesn't address. As SOON as I can JB my iPhone 4S on 5.1, done and done.
  • You say we havent looked hard enough, but you also provide no examples. I jailbroke and enjoyed the themes and some minor tweaking, but it didnt offer enough to be worth the hassle.
  • BiteSMS, ActionMenu, SBsettings & FolderEnhancer are all the reason i need to JB at this point. These are all fairly simple tweaks that add a lot more functionality to iOS. Until Apple adopts (@ least) 3 outta 4 of these tweaks..."good enough", will never be good enough! <--IMO
  • What is hard to understand is why Apple has locked down the iPhone's full potential. Most of the cydia tweaks are not stolen or cracked apps but tweaks that allow funtions that the iPhone is and should be capable of doing but Apple refuses to allow. Why is this?
    If Apple would simply unlock or allow these developers to submit their tweaks to the app store then people would probably bess less inclined to jailbreak their phones.
  • I think the entire premise of your article is undermined by the false assumption you make that the number of users who find the need to jailbreak has been in decline with each new iOS version. The best measurement for the popularity of jail breaking is the usage numbers for Cydia, and in every interview I have found including (http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/once-the-hobby-of-tech-ge...) Jay Freeman has said the usage numbers have only gone up. Of course you would expect these numbers to go up based on the numbers of new users alone, but you have provided no evidence annecdotal or otherwise that the percentages of users has gone down either. So in the end you have a flawed conclusion based on your own assumptions.
    Apple's adoption of innovations from jailbreak apps does not lead to the irrelevance of jailbreak developers until those developers stop innovating.
  • I am not claiming to "know" that people are not jailbreaking. This is an editorial and my opinion only from my observations over the course of iOS 4 and iOS 5. The feel I get from most users around here and other forums and communities is that a lot of users may stop jailbreaking due to iOS adding missing functionality. And yes, numbers go up as new users pick up iOS devices.
    I don't think I drew a "flawed conclusion" because it is my opinion. Just as you have no evidence to support "why" the numbers of jailbreak users is going up. For all we know, it's people pirating apps. Or they want to install a unicorn tweak that skips around the screen. I simply wanted to get others feedback and provide my opinion on iOS and jailbreak and how they affect eachother as iOS matures. that's all, no more no less.
  • You say that you don't think that you drew a false conclusion because it's your opinion. I disagree. I'm not saying your conclusion is false, what I am saying is that it's possible for our opinion to lead us to false conclusions. That's what logical fallacies are all about, leading to false conclusions.
    I think what you mean is that this is your opinion and you don't care if the conclusion is true or false. However, it is certainly possible for our opinions to lead us to false conclusions.
    Nice article by the way.
  • Sorry, I meant flawed, not false.
    I thought of a good example. Many people think that "If a implies b" then "if b implies a". But that is a flawed way of thinking and thus their opinions lead them to flawed conclusions.
  • You are right that we all have the right to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts.
    " And each time, the functionality gap closes, the reasons to jailbreak become fewer, and the number of users who jailbreak become fewer along with it."
    The first two sections of this sentence are opinion, but when you make the statement "the number of users who jailbreak become fewer along with it." you are making a statement of fact that you can not support. When you make conclusions based on incorrect data they can't be supported. This does not mean that your conclusions are necessarily right or wrong, just that those opinions were arrived at with faulty information.
  • Absolutely Correct!!!
  • Does jailbreaking cause a headache for phones used in a corporate environment? I would think having unauthorized software on a phone would be a security compromise.
  • I dont see how it would if its your personal phone. If it is a work phone then yes, it would be a bad thing.
  • I have over 10 jailbreak tweaks on my iPhone 4s that I woud not even use my iPhone without. I think Jailbreaking keeps many would-be android users on iOS. That's just how I see things.
  • ^^^ THIS!!! ^^^
  • Exactly, the day Jailbreaks stop is the day I jump ship, or if apple add in these features I will be happy.
    Remove recent apps from switcher.
    Quick reply!!
    Toggles for setting on home screen. (anicons)
    Better lock screen notifications. (intelliscreenx)
    Adblocker. (as mobile sites are riddled now)
    AppStore doesn't close on purchase of app :@ so bloody annoying.
    f.lux support as the blue screen at night hurts your eyes. (over extended periods)
    Speed dial of some sort on lockscreen. (Weespeeddial)
  • I can't wait to see what iOS 6 has in store. Hurry up apple, my developer membership expires in 29 days.
  • Th