iPhones and iPads are locked-down devices. You can only install apps Apple has approved, and you can’t tweak the underlying system like you could on a Windows, Mac, or Linux system. Jailbreaking is the act of escaping this figurative “jail.”
Apple doesn’t like jailbreaking, and they go out of their way to make it more difficult. The jailbreaking community and Apple are engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse. Jailbreakers work to make jailbreaking possible before Apple blocks their latest tricks.
What is Jailbreaking?
Jailbreaking is different from rooting and unlocking, but it’s similar. Like many other modern devices, iOS devices like iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches come locked-down. You don’t have access to the entire device’s file system in the same way you have low-level access on a Windows, Mac, or Linux computer. Apple has this “Administrator” or “Root user” access on your device, not you.
Jailbreaking is the act of gaining full access to an iOS device. Jailbreakers generally locate a security vulnerability and use it to escape the locked down environment, giving users full control over their devices.
Thanks to the US DMCA, jailbreaking an iPhone is completely legal, while jailbreaking an iPad appears to be a felony. Laws may vary in other countries.
Why People Jailbreak
An iPhone or iPad’s locked-down nature means you can only do what Apple allows you to do with it. For example, you can’t change your default email app or web browser. You also can’t install apps from outside Apple’s App Store, which means you’re out of luck if you want to use an app Apple doesn’t approve of. You also don’t have the low-level access to customize the iOS operating system in other ways, doing a wide variety of things that Apple wouldn’t approve of. Performing other system-level tweaks like changing themes, adding widgets, or enabling Wi-Fi tethering against your carrier’s wishes also requires jailbreaking.
People jailbreak because they want to do more with their devices than Apple allows them to. Whether you want to get your hands dirty with low-level system tweaks or just make Chrome and Gmail your default web browser and email apps, jailbreaing gives you complete access to the underlying system and gives you the power to do these things.
Apple’s War on Jailbreaking
Because jailbreaking isn’t intended or supported by Apple, all jailbreaks are accomplished through finding a security vulnerability in Apple’s iOS operating system and exploiting it. This gives Apple two different motivations to block jailbreaking: They want to prevent jailbreaking itself, and they also want to fix security flaws that could be used to compromise iOS devices for malicious purposes.
Every time the jailbreaking community releases a new tool that exploits a flaw, Apple notices. They can then fix the flaw in the next version of iOS, which blocks the jailbreak from functioning. This means that jailbreakers who depend on their jailbreak tweaks may often hold back from upgrading to new versions of iOS until a jailbreak has been released and is confirmed working. Upgrading to a new version of iOS will generally “fix” the jailbreak as well as the security flaw, resetting the device to a locked-down state.
For example, an iOS 7 jailbreak was just released on December 22, 2013. iOS 7 itself was released on September 16, 2013. This means that it took the jailbreaking community over four months to find a jailbreak for iOS 7 — prior to this, jailbreakers could choose to use an old version of iOS 6 or upgrade to the latest version and lose their jailbreak. Apple will soon fix this jailbreak with a new version of iOS, and jailbreakers will have to choose between their jailbreaks and the latest version of iOS.
As Apple continues to patch up holes in iOS, jailbreaks are taking longer to appear. The jailbreaking community is locked in a perpetual struggle with Apple. Apple will probably never completely win — it’s difficult to make software without any holes — but they’re making things increasingly difficult for jailbreakers.
How to Jailbreak
Before performing a jailbreak or doing anything else risky, you’ll probably want to back up your device. If there’s a problem, you can restore the backup.
Assuming a jailbreak is currently available for your device’s version of iOS — and one just came out for iOS 9.3 very recently — you’ll simply need to locate the jailbreak tool, download it, and run it on your computer. The current jailbreaking tool of choice is Pangu. The jailbreaking process involves downloading the program to your Mac or Windows computer, connecting your iOS device to your computer with a USB cable, and running the tool. It should hopefully jailbreak your device with no problems. Be sure to follow all the instructions included with the jailbreak tool.
As part of the jailbreak process, the tool will install Cydia on your device. Cydia is an alternative app store containing iOS apps that Apple wouldn’t approve. They’re the kind of thing developed by the jailbreaking community that Apple doesn’t want you to use. For example, you’ll find tools for theming your device and adding widgets here. If you want to change your default browser, you’d install the BrowserChooser app from Cydia and select your default browser with it. Cydia is the way you actually accomplish the things that probably led you to jailbreak your device in the first place.
If you depend on jailbreaking, be sure to wait until a new jailbreak is available for every new version of Apple’s iOS before upgrading. Apple doesn’t want you to jailbreak your devices and they go out of their way to stop it.