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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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iMore senior editor from 2011 to 2015.