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HTG Explains: What’s the Difference Between Jailbreaking, Rooting, and Unlocking?

iphones ipods and ipad

Compared to a PC, phones and tablets are fairly locked-down devices. Jailbreaking, rooting, and unlocking are all ways of bypassing their limitations, and doing things that manufacturers and carriers don’t want you to do.

Some countries have laws that prevent you from doing these things with the devices you paid for and legally own — we won’t get into those laws here.

Image Credit: Blake Patterson on Flickr

Jailbreaking

Jailbreaking is the process of removing the limitations put in place by a device’s manufacturer. Jailbreaking is generally performed on Apple iOS devices, such as the iPhone or iPad. Jailbreaking removes the restrictions Apple puts in place, allowing you to install third-party software from outside the app store. Some people may have the perception that jailbreaking is only used for piracy, but this isn not the case — jailbreaking allows you to do things like change your iPhone’s default browser and mail client. Essentially, jailbreaking allows you to use software that Apple doesn’t approve.

Jailbreaking can be performed on other devices with similar limitations. For example, there is now a Microsoft Surface RT jailbreak that allows you to install unapproved desktop programs. (By default, Windows RT systems only allow you to run desktop applications written by Microsoft.) However, the desktop apps must be compiled for ARM, so you can’t run any Windows desktop programs you already have, although open-source applications could be tweaked and recompiled for the Windows desktop on ARM.

Companies like Apple and Microsoft don’t want you jailbreaking to get past a device’s limitations — so you can change the default programs on iOS or run third-party desktop applications on Windows RT. To perform a jailbreak, someone has to find a security vulnerability that allows them to “exploit” the device and get around the manufacturer safeguards.

Android allows users to install third-party applications from outside Google’s app store out-of-the-box and doesn’t need to be jailbroken.

Rooting

Rooting is the process of gaining “root access” to a device. This is generally performed on Android devices, but rooting can also occur on other devices based on Linux, such as Nokia’s now-retired Symbian operating system.

On Linux and other UNIX-like operating systems, the root user is essentially the same as the Administrator user on Windows. After rooting, you can grant specific applications access to root permissions, allowing them to do almost anything they want to the operating system. For example, an application with root permissions could uninstall system applications, install low-level system binaries, revoke permissions installed apps require, and do other crazy things. Almost anything you can do on a proper Linux system, you can do with root access on your phone.

Rooting gets around Android’s security architecture and could potentially cause problems if users don’t know what they’re doing, so Android doesn’t come rooted.

On some devices, rooting may need to be accomplished via a security exploit. Just like jailbreaking, manufacturers generally don’t want you rooting. On some devices, such as Nexus devices (which are also intended for developers), rooting does not require a security vulnerability.

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Unlocking a Bootloader

Android is an open-source operating system, so anyone can take the Android source code and create their own version of it. This allows custom ROMs like Cyanogenmod to exist. Lots of custom ROMs exist for Android — everything from large projects that support a variety of devices to custom ROMs with a few theme patches some kid whipped up in his spare time.

However, many Android phones come with locked bootloaders. A locked bootloader won’t boot anything but the manufacturer-approved version of Android that comes with the device. Unlocking the bootloader allows you to install custom ROMs — alternate versions of the Android operating system.

This isn’t just useful to geeks — Cyanogenmod brings new versions of Android to devices that manufacturers no longer update. It’s a more vanilla Android experience, too — many people like it because it is an alternative to the manufacturer-customized user interfaces most Android devices come with.

Unlocking a device’s bootloader may also require a security exploit, although companies like HTC and Motorola allow unlocking some devices. Nexus devices (which are also intended for developers) can be easily unlocked.

Unlocking a boot loader can theoretically allow you to install non-Android operating systems, too. For example, you can install Ubuntu for phones or WebOS on a Galaxy Nexus with an unlocked bootloader. The desktop version of Ubuntu can be installed on the Nexus 7, too. Of course, the operating system must be built to be compatible with a specific device. These operating systems probably aren’t particularly stable — but developers can use the devices to run an alternate operating system while they work on it.

cyanogenmod-header

Image Credit: Johan Larsson on Flickr

Unlocking a Phone

Many phones, particularly phones that come subsidized with a contract, come “locked” to a specific carrier. The phone is set up so that it can only be used on that carrier’s network. If you insert a SIM card from a competing carrier into the phone, you will see a message indicating that the phone is locked and cannot be used with the SIM card.

Unlocking a phone allows you to use it with a different SIM card — either to use a different carrier while travelling or to take your current phone with you while switching to a new service provider.

You will generally need an unlock code to unlock the phone. Many carriers will unlock phones once your contract is up, while phones bought outright without a contract may not be locked to a carrier at all. There are ways to unlock phones without a carrier’s permission, too.

locked t-mobile phone

Image Credit: Kai Hendry on Flickr


Not everyone has to jailbreak, root, or unlock their devices. However, the option is there — and now you know why you might want to.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 01/31/13

Comments (15)

  1. Rob

    Having done both Jailbreaking and Rooting, I have to say, Rooting wins. Mostly because when you root Android you can load custom OSes. Where as Jailbreaking doesn’t really get you a whole lot other than adding some “unapproved” programs and maybe a little bit of iOS customization.

  2. Josh B.

    Linux is often touted for it’s security. It is one of the reasons I type from a laptop running a distro today. However, people are rooting their phones as if it is trivial! Is my current Linux box not really that secure after all?

  3. ReadandShare

    “There are ways to unlock phones without a carrier’s permission, too.”

    I recently unlocked my T Mobile feature phone so I could sell it. I got a T Mobile smart phone replacement (HTC Sensaton 4G) and wish to unlock as well. Unfortunately, T Mobile’s reply was “only one unlock request every 90 days”…

  4. john3347

    Josh, computer security is roughly related to the size of the target. Would you put forth the effort to infiltrate an OS that had a 90% concentration (Windows) or an OS that had more like a 2% concentration (Linux)? Linux is primarily “secure” by obscurity and is not un-penetrable. Don’t assume your Linux computer cannot (or could not) be infiltrated by a determined hacker!!!!!

  5. WonderMike

    Good article, but I noticed one mistake. Symbian is NOT Linux based OS. It uses totally different kernel.

  6. Joe

    @john3347

    “secure by obscurity”

    Explain the obscurity of abotu 50% of all webservers being linux-based?

  7. John Penn

    Good article. About time people understand these differences. Been a flash addict since cm6 lol. Today its so much easier for someone. The android sdk, adb, and all the toolboxes out there. No excuses for bricking a device anymore. Lol.

  8. Layer 8

    As soon as you have local access to a device, breaking into it becomes a whole lot easier than when attempting to do it remotely.

  9. srsly tho

    Thanks for clearly explaining the difference.

  10. Mike

    Good article but it left me with 2 questions …
    1. will unlocking phone affect its use with the current carrier?
    and
    2. will unlocking a phone allow it to be used on both CDMA and GSM …..?

  11. KeKyKo

    Great article. Thanks.

  12. Aozora

    @Mike

    1) No, it will not affect you with your current provider.
    2) No, for example a Verizon iPhone 4s (CDMA) will not accept a GSM sim card.

  13. hangdawg
  14. Dave

    Nice article. I’d like to be able to use Google maps as my default map app instead of the flimsy TomTom maps now forced upon us by default on both new iPhone 5 and 4S OS 6.1 upgrades. I detest paying for something and then being forced into a corner. Kinda like taxes on retirement income. :-(

  15. Andrew Kupchik

    I didnt write the secure by obscurity article or blog, but I think I know what they are getting at.. It was the kind of protection Apple enjoyed for years. Apple had such poor market penetration for years (dont know the % but it was really low compared to windows), that even if it were as poor as microsoft was security wise, the total volume of hackers out there using Apple at that time, or Linux now is so low compared to the number using Windows that attacks on (apple then) linux will be excessively low based on “scarsity of the system”.

    I do not know enough about linux to say if it is ><= to windows in its ability to withstand an attack and windows also has security programs that also increase its abiltiy to withstand an attack and come out unscathed. With windows 8 sucking so bad and in my opinion really being only usefull for someone using a device with a touch screen, along with linux become much more novice or intermediate user level friendly, linux may see a large quick bump in user-ship in the next 1-2 years and also may see an increase in the frequency of hackers attackes on those systems running it.

    Drew

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