Smartphone jailbreaking, and what vendors are doing about it

Did you breathe a sigh of relief at news that it is legal to jailbreak your smartphones? The happy ending you wanted may not have arrived yet, after all.

Did you breathe a sigh of relief at news that it is legal to jailbreak your smartphones? The happy ending you wanted may not have arrived yet, after all.

Jailbreaking smartphones is finally legal, for now: 2010 marks the year that jailbreaking smartphones was officially included as an exception to the DMCA's restrictions against circumventing copy protection technologies. Immediately after the announcement, was unleashed upon the world:

Use the #1 Jailbreaking Solution from to jailbreak and unlock your 2G, 3G, and 3GS iPhones. Our jailbreaking solution is up to date and can jailbreak iPhones, iPods and iPads up to firmware 4.01. When you purchase a membership you get lifetime access to all our guides, jailbreak and unlock software as well as regular updates and access to support.

The process of unlocking or jailbreaking an iPhone has effectively been simplified to a one-click operation using software available from a publicly accessible website. Within moments of the legalization of jailbreaking, it became an affordable consumer product.

The most direct competitor to the iPhone in its key markets is the family of Android smartphones, using a mix of open and closed source software to provide much the same functionality as Apple's iPhone with greater flexibility and variety. One of the most widely appreciated benefits of Android devices over iPhones is the greater flexibility and -- in the words of some -- freedom afforded the user.

By contrast, Apple's reputation among consumers and especially developers is increasingly colored by an apparently deep-seated need to control everything about the user experience, to the point that users' preferences take second place, at best, in Apple's list of priorities. Many understandably chafe at this, particularly when developers find their options consistently restricted ever more as time goes on. Even when adhering to all such restrictions, developers often find their applications for the iPhone platform languishing in limbo awaiting approval (or rejection) for inclusion in the App Store. Some have even found security fixes for applications already in the App Store gathering dust while Apple decided whether to approve them.

Now that the recent exception to the DMCA's restrictions, allowing people to jailbreak their smartphone devices and even to offer commercial jailbreaking services to others, has prompted the appearance of such a service targeting iPhones in the form of, the results of this control-freakish attitude in Apple might seem counterintuitive to many. On the other side of the aisle, Android devices have no such singular jailbreaking site, in large part because of the diversity and flexibility the platform allows and the way many manufacturers are invited to produce devices for the software platform. It is easy for jailbreakers to provide a single, simplified means of cracking controls on a single vendor's platform; it is not so easy to do the same for the ever-growing plethora of devices that run Android.

How ironic is it that the Android Marketplace contains applications that specifically depend upon jailbreaking, while the idea of such an application appearing in the iPhone App Store is essentially unthinkable, but it is the iPhone that is served by one-stop shopping for people who want to jailbreak it? In fact, it is even possible to run Android on some iPhones.

Now, of course, many iPhone users who have jailbroken their smartphones -- or who are thinking of doing so -- will be dismayed to learn about an Apple patent application "covering an elaborate series of measures to automatically protect iPhone owners from thieves and other unauthorized users," according to a Register article titled, Apple eyes kill switch for jailbroken iPhones ...for your own good. The patent is called "Systems and Methods for Identifying Unauthorized Users of an Electronic Device". Among other topics, it covers the possibility of bricking iPhones, or otherwise punishing people, when an iPhone has been jailbroken.

Some might object to the benevolent phrasing of the patent application, considering the provisions for reacting to device jailbreaking, but it is worth noting that -- in the eyes of Apple -- anyone who jailbreaks or unlocks an iPhone is by definition an "unauthorized user". Potential for irony abounds here, and not in a manner that favors Apple, nonetheless; such a patent could make it exceedingly difficult for manufacturers and software providers for other smartphones to enforce non-jailbreaking prohibitions on their own devices, as the legal route for enforcement has been stripped away by the Library of Congress at the urging of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the technical route is in danger of being monopolized by Apple.

Ultimately, the effect may be to widen the flexibility and capability gap between the iPhone and more-open competitors such as the Android platform, which is already widely regarded as the better choice for those who like to be able to use their own possessions as they see fit. This in turn might give Apple's competitors in the smartphone market more of a competitive edge.

This does not mean that there are not similar problems in the world of Android, however. For instance, the much-ballyhooed Droid X, which some claim could replace your laptop, faces similar problems for users who like to do more with their mobile devices than make calls, take pictures, find restaurants, and play Duck Hunt. Regardless of its capabilities, reports have been making the rounds that the Droid X contains a booby trap. In short, it seems that the Droid X actually self-destructs if you try to mod it. As Devin Coldewey puts it:

If you want to make it difficult to hack, that's fine. You think your software should be enough, that's fine. But once I pay money for the item, it's mine, and disabling my device because you don't like what I'm doing with it falls under the category of sabotage.

His source is apparently a discussion at My Droid World:

If the eFuse failes to verify this information then the eFuse receives a command to "blow the fuse" or "trip the fuse". This results in the booting process becoming corrupted and resulting in a permanent bricking of the Phone. This FailSafe is activated anytime the bootloader is tampered with or any of the above three parts of the phone has been tampered with.

Summarized, it seems that Motorola has actually included a system designed to physically damage a device running software in an "unauthorized" configuration.

Android devices are probably your best bet for the forseeable future if you want something useful that allows you to tinker and accomplish arbitrary tasks outisde the narrow constraints of what the designers envisioned. If this report is true, though, you may want to avoid Motorola, if that is your aim.

Motorola's response to Engadget is predictably phrased to make it sound like it's all for the consumer's own good, sounding quite similar to Apple's patent language. Even quoting Motorola's own words, however, the implications are all too clear:

In reference specifically to eFuse, the technology is not loaded with the purpose of preventing a consumer device from functioning, but rather ensuring for the user that the device only runs on updated and tested versions of software. If a device attempts to boot with unapproved software, it will go into recovery mode, and can re-boot once approved software is re-installed. Checking for a valid software configuration is a common practice within the industry to protect the user against potential malicious software threats.

While this does seem to suggest that the smartphone need not be permanently bricked absent a hardware fix, it also notably does not deny the possibility -- and the result that the user is locked into using only the software Motorola wants him or her to use remains unchanged.

The most encouraging comment, with regard to providing a means for users to actually use their devices the way they desire, is the tail end of Engadget's quote:

Motorola has been a long time advocate of open platforms and provides a number of resources to developers to foster the ecosystem including tools and access to devices via MOTODEV at

Too bad this doesn't help people who want the device to perform tasks normally restricted by Android. For instance, the Android Market contains applications offering SSH capabilities, despite the fact there is a perfectly serviceable SSH application built into the system -- because users are prevented from accessing standard command line tools on Android without "rooting" (or jailbreaking) the platform.

In the end, only time and experimentation by the community of users will give us a meaningful answer to the question of how Motorola anti-modding technology will compare to Apple's.