The iPhone jailbreak is an eternal game of whack-a-mole: the ever enterprising hackers find a way to bust open iOS, then for a few short months or days, you can have the very latest version of iOS without the restrictions, before Apple brings the hammer down and patches it, leaving you behind the curve and waiting once more.
It’s a race I’m growing tired of: I never thought I’d say this, but why can’t Apple copy Microsoft, just this once?
You might have missed it, in amidst all the press focus on Nokia last week, but late last Friday, an awesome new Windows Phone service went live: it’s called ChevronWP7 Labs, and it jailbreaks your Windows Phone. With it, you can install homebrew and jailbreak apps, and even set up live tiles as folders for other applications.
And here’s the thing: it’s Microsoft approved.
Now, a quick primer. While Android is an open field where you’ve always been able to bypass the Android Market app store, Apple has kept its mobile platform, iOS, fenced off as walled garden. Only apps that meet Apple’s stringent criteria make it onto the App Store, which means security is less of an issue, and that it’s very easy to set up and buy apps, doubtless part of the reason why many developers make more money on iOS right now.
When Microsoft rebooted its mobile efforts with Windows Phone 7, it took quite a few ideas from Apple: you could only side load media onto a Windows Phone via Zune desktop software (a la iTunes) and you could only install apps from the Windows Phone Marketplace. That immediately led to a burgeoning Windows Phone jailbreak scene akin to the iPhone jailbreak one.
In November last year, one team, ChevronWP7, cracked Windows Phone right open, and unleashed a jailbreak program onto the web. At this point, Microsoft stopped copying Apple: it asked the developers behind it, Rafael Rivera, Chris Walsh, and Long Zheng, to take it down, using a carrot, not a stick.
Where one might expect cease and desist letters, the Windows Phone team instead invited the trio to meet with them. The results of their partnership were finally released last week: for $9 (£5.60), ChevronWP7 Labs will unlock your Windows Phone in a way similar to an iPhone jailbreak. Officially, it’s for “hobbyist” developers to craft homebrew apps for cheap, but it’s also a way to enjoy others’ homebrew apps: they already include a stupendously sensible battery life live tile and a screenshot tool but doubtless you can expect retro game emulators and more in the near future.
Which got me thinking: why can’t Apple make an iPhone jailbreak so painless for the minority that know and want to install unsigned apps? A US court has already ruled that iPhone jailbreaking is legal, so why not make it a little less tiresome, a bit more timely? The last figures I could find (Admittedly from 2009), pegged the total of jailbroken iPhones at only 8.43 percent of all iPhones. That’s a small portion of the total iOS community, but also the most vocal: they’re the ones who know how to kick up a fuss when Apple’s app police court controversy. Why not use them as evangelists instead?
Apple would never admit it, but the iPhone jailbreak scene has been a huge source of inspiration for Scott Forstall’s iOS team. Big features in iOS updates have often turned up as apps on the jailbreak Cydia store first, from multi-tasking solutions to Wi-Fi tethering, wireless iTunes syncing and drop down notifications.
Phones and tablets are the new PCs, so why not encourage that scene further? Granted, Siri being hacked could be a big economic blow for Apple, but since it relies on Apple’s huge data centres, there’s no reason it can’t keep the types of iOS gizmos that can contact it locked down.
The point is, it’s no longer 2007 anymore. Sooner or later, iPhone and iPad owners are going to realise that apps don’t have to work as stand alone programs, and actually, why shouldn’t they be allowed to use a different keyboard or home screen launcher? Better to allow jailbreakers to show off their skills, and see what works, and maybe even make some money out of it in the process. Apple likes that.
Granted, Apple is slowly learning. In August, it took on famed iPhone jailbreak hacker Comex as an intern at its Cupertino HQ. But just as important as software security are the features your regular Joe gets to play with. Now with the world’s biggest phone maker backing a third platform, Windows Phone, innovation is more important than ever.
If Microsoft can embrace the jailbreak crowd and see what comes of it, perhaps just once, Apple could ape Redmond, rather than the other way round.
What do you think? Is Apple dealing with iPhone jailbreaking the right way? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments.
Image via beaugiles