If jailbreaking/rooting might compromise the phone’s security and void the warranty, why are some smartphone owners doing it? Deb Shinder outlines the benefits and more of the drawbacks of jailbreaking and rooting.


The primary purpose of jailbreaking in the context of smartphones is to allow the phone to install and run third-party applications that haven’t been approved by Apple. Phones that are not jailbroken can only run applications obtained through Apple’s App Store.

Jailbreaking was first used in regard to the Apple iPhone shortly after its release in 2007. In fact, the iPhone went on sale in the United States on June 29, 2007, and the first jailbreak was publicized on July 10, 2007. Soon groups dedicated to hacking the iPhone released jailbreaking applications so people without hacking skills could release their phones from Apple’s lockdown. PwnageTool for the iPhone 2G was released in 2008, and has been regularly updated. The current version of PwnageTool, 4.01, came out on June 22, 2010 and jailbreaks the new iOS 4.0.

Rooting is a term used in reference to the Android operating system to describe a similar process. In both jailbreaking and rooting, you take administrative control over the operating system. However, the purpose of rooting is a little different than jailbreaking.

Android phones are not locked into running only apps that come from the Android Marketplace, but some apps require rooting, as we discuss below in the “Why are they doing it?” section. Rooting also enables you to install a custom ROM to run versions of Android that the handset maker doesn’t supply or support. Mobile phone carriers often place limitations on the phones they provide, and rooting lets you circumvent those limitations.

Is it legal?

Up until July 26, 2010, jailbreaking or rooting your phone was considered illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). That law, enacted in 1998, criminalized the circumvention of access controls technologies. However, the law also gives the Librarian of Congress the power to designate exceptions. This year’s ruling made an exception for software that enables a wireless phone to execute software applications (i.e., jailbreaking or rooting).

Although as far as I can tell, nobody was prosecuted for jailbreaking their phones prior to the legalization, some say Apple did threaten to do so. Note that the ruling only affects criminal prosecution; the ruling doesn’t address breach of contract. Therefore, if you signed a contract in which you agree not to jailbreak the phone, it doesn’t keep the phone vendors from issuing patches to “undo” your jailbreak or even brick your jailbroken phone.

Why the handset makers and carriers hate it

Don’t call up your cellular carrier and ask for help jailbreaking or rooting your phone — the carriers and the phone makers hate the entire idea. That’s because it takes control away from them and gives it to the phone’s owner.

Phone manufacturers don’t want you to do it because of the small number of cases in which it can make the phone unstable or open it up to security breaches. It then makes them look bad because it’s their phone that’s crashing or introducing malware to your network.

Carriers hate it even more because it can cost them money. They even go so far as to “cripple” features that the phone makers build in, so they can charge you an extra fee for the same service. One example is Wi-Fi hotspot capability, for which carriers charge up to $30 per month when you can do the same thing on a rooted phone with no extra fees using a free or low, one-time-cost app. Some carriers also don’t want you running apps like Skype to make phone calls instead of using expensive cellular voice minutes.

Related TechRepublic post: Smartphone jailbreaking, and what vendors are doing about it.

The benefits of jailbreaking and rooting

Some of the benefits of jailbreaking and rooting include the following (depending on the limitations that the handset maker and/or carrier puts on a particular phone):

  • In the case of the iPhone, jailbreaking is necessary if you want to install any application that hasn’t been approved by Apple, such as GV Mobile, which is an unofficial version of the Google Voice app that the App Store rejected.
  • You may need to jailbreak to add custom notification sounds and ringtones (depending on your phone model).
  • Some apps are “crippled” by the carrier to work only when the phone is on a Wi-Fi network. For example, the iPhone only allows you to use Skype with Wi-Fi. 3G Unrestrictor is an unofficial app (available through Cydia) that allows you to use Skype and other similarly restricted apps when connected to the 3G network. FaceBreak is a jailbreak app that lets you use FaceTime on the iPhone 4 over the 3G network.
  • Jailbreaking gives you more options for organizing and managing files on the iPhone. You can use iFile to copy and move files, transfer files over a web server, and set permissions on files.
  • Jailbreaking the iPhone is the first step to unlock it, so that it can work with another GSM carrier’s SIM card. This is especially useful if you’re traveling overseas and want to use your iPhone without incurring AT&T’s horrific international roaming charges.
  • Another unofficial app that is a good reason for many people to jailbreak their iPhones is xGPS, a free turn-by-turn GPS app.
  • For pre-iOS4 iPhones, you had to jailbreak to be able to run background apps from third parties (multitask).
  • Rooting your Android phone can drastically improve its performance if you install a custom ROM that has been tweaked for performance. You can find apps that will overclock the phone’s processor, but you must have root in order to install them.
  • With some phones, you may have to root in order to install programs on the microSD card. Android 2.2 adds that ability, but some carriers may disable it.
  • Some custom ROMs add support for proxy and VPN.
  • For iPhone and Android phones, you’ll need to jailbreak or root the phone in order to run programs that let you turn the phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot so you can connect your laptop or an iPad to the Internet through its 3G or 4G network without paying an extra monthly fee to the carrier. This is something you can already do with the WMWifiRouter app on a Windows Mobile 6.5 phone (without any jailbreaking required) and that was, for me, the most compelling advantage of WinMo over the more popular phone platforms.

How many smartphone owners are jailbreaking and rooting?

According to Jay Freeman, the founder of Cydia — software that aggregates repositories of “unofficial” apps for jailbroken iPhones in a sort of alternative App Store — about 10 percent of iPhones are jailbroken.

It’s difficult to find figures on the number of rooted Android phones, but based on the forums, a significant number of users are doing it.

On the one hand, the motivation to jailbreak the iPhone is stronger because Apple keeps such tight control over the apps you can install. On the other hand, Android users seem to be more apt to be techy types, and techy types are more likely to modify their phones.

Even though there are one-click apps to do it for you, most of my friends and relatives who have iPhones or Android phones were unfamiliar with the idea of jailbreaking/rooting before I asked them about it, and even those who knew about it were afraid to do it.

The drawbacks of jailbreaking and rooting

The primary reason for my friends’ cautious approach was the fear that they would “mess up” their phones and turn the devices into $400 bricks. And it’s true that if you do it incorrectly, you could end up with a useless device, especially when installing a custom ROM. However, you can restore the phone to the factory settings if you mess up. Note: This will wipe out your data and any apps you’ve installed. Always back up your personal data whether or not you jailbreak/root your phone.

Perhaps a more important concern is that jailbreaking/rooting can compromise the security and/or reliability of your smartphone. Remember, these phones are actually full-fledged computers, albeit small ones. The devices are vulnerable to malware and attacks just like laptop and desktop systems. An advantage of getting apps from Apple’s App Store is that the apps have been tested thoroughly. This applies, to a lesser extent, to the Android Marketplace.

Unofficial apps can contain malicious code, or they may just be poorly written and cause your phone’s OS to crash. When applications have root access, they can do a great deal of harm to your phone’s software.

In addition, jailbreaking or rooting your phone may void the warranty. Read your contract to find out.

Finally, some of the custom ROMs work the phone’s memory and processor harder, and this may result in decreased battery life.

How to jailbreak or root your phone

If you decide the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, there are a number of tools available to help you with jailbreak or root your phone.

You can use the redsn0w or the Spirit utility to jailbreak the iPhone 3G. JailbreakMe is another utility that has a new version for jailbreaking the iPhone 4. (Jailbreaking is becoming so popular that recently Apple blocked access to the JailbreakMe.com web site on their in-store Wi-Fi networks, but this did little to deter determined jailbreakers.) You can also watch a CNET video on how to jailbreak your iPhone or iPod Touch. (Here’s the link to jailbreakmatrix.com, which is referenced in the video.)

Apple released an update, iOS 4.0.2, to stop the jailbreak software from working, but there’s a way around it for the iPhone 3G.

Rooting your Android phone is a little more complicated, in part because there are so many Android models. For example, here is a set of instructions on how to root the Motorola Droid 2.1. There are one-click rooting tools for various Android phones; here’s a program that works with the Droid X (Figure A). Rooting the HTC EVO 4G is only slightly more complex with this tool.
Figure A

Rooting some Android phones is easy, with one-click tools available for that purpose.

Search the web for “one click root” and your phone’s model name, and/or peruse the popular smartphone forums to find out more about how to root your particular handset model and OS version.

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