In electronics, jailbreaking is the colloquial term for hacking or circumventing an electronic device's default security and operating limits. The term generally refers to the hacking of Apple's iOS mobile operating system, but may be applied to other types of gadgets. By jailbreaking the device, the user gains access to features that would have been otherwise inaccessible.
The main purpose of jailbreaking is to allow the user to install and run unauthorized software on the device. Web applications or apps are the most commonly downloaded software on iOS. Only apps approved by Apple are published on the app store. As a result, selection for official apps is somewhat limited.
A jailbroken phone is able to download apps from third party developers, expanding the user’s options. Another advantage is being able to access new features such as customized themes and ringtones, video recording, and multitasking. These are features, many argue, that are available on almost all smart phones.
Jailbreaking is typically done by downloading a jailbreak program on the device. The program exploits weaknesses in the system's code and installs new commands. Once the firmware is modified, the manufacturer restrictions are removed. This allows the user to run any program and change the device's programming code.
Less than a month after the iPhone® was released in 2007, the first iOS coding flaw was discovered. The following year, a group of programmers distributed a program that made it easier for most users to jailbreak the iPhone®. Subsequent versions of the program were later adopted to hack the iPod touch® and iPad®.
Although the terms are often interchanged, unlocking a phone is different than jailbreaking one. Most unlocking methods won't work without first jailbreaking the phone, however. An unlocked phone lets another SIM card from a different network provider to work on the phone. Manufacturers try to prevent this vulnerability by releasing updates that fix firmware bugs. The updates are not infallible, however, as it traditionally requires programmers only a few months to discover another coding weakness.
There are hazards involved in jailbreaking. Since the apps downloaded are not certified, the user risks installing malware in the device. There is also a chance of bricking the phone, a scenario where the gadget's firmware becomes so extensively damaged that the phone is basically useless.
As of 2010, there is no legal liability in the US in jailbreaking an Apple product. The United States Copyright Office exempted jailbreaking from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Apple Inc. has suggested that modifying their products would, in effect, void the warranty.