Unlocking vs Jailbreaking an iPhone

Question

I have an iPhone and my nerdy friends keep telling me that I should jailbreak and unlock it so I can do whatever I want with the phone. What exactly are they talking about and is it illegal or does it just sound illegal?

- Jan

Answer

This question was answered on January 2, 2009. Much of the information contained herein may have changed since posting.

To understand all the terminology for bypassing technology restrictions, it helps to understand the bigger picture.

When companies like Apple create new hardware devices such as the iPhone, in order to maximize the profitability, they create restrictions on what can be run on the phone (software) and in the case of the iPhone, which cellular network they will work on.

Apple signed an exclusive deal with AT&T as the only approved cellular network that the iPhone will work on In order to enforce this relationship, iPhones are ‘locked’ to only work on the AT&T system.

When your friends refer to ‘unlocking’ the iPhone, they are suggesting that you change the way the phone was programmed so it can potentially work on other cellular networks.

While this can be done and is quite popular in countries outside of the US, there a number of reasons you may want to think twice before doing it yourself.

The question of legality has been debated as all legal issued tend to be, but the reality is that if you unlock your phone for your own personal use (as opposed to unlocking phones and reselling them) you are covered by the 2006 exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which allows consumers to unlock their cellphones "for the sole purpose of lawfully connecting to a wireless telephone communication network."

At the end of the day, you as an individual unlocking a single phone won’t be of much interest to Apple and AT&T, but the main concern has little to do with the legalities.

The real concern is getting the phone unlocked without “bricking” it (rendering it useless), voiding your warranty from Apple, your existing contract with AT&T and getting it connected on a new carrier

A search on the Internet will uncover lots of ways that you can unlock your iPhone to get the phone working on another carrier, but none of it is for the faint at heart (technically speaking).

The more common and less perilous ‘jailbreaking’ refers to opening up the phone to applications outside of what Apple has approved through their application distribution system (the App Store).

Jailbreaking your iPhone allows you to install 3rd party applications and ringtones on your iPhone by creating another way to install items outside of the App Store.

A jailbroken iPhone will be returned to factory standards (locked down) if an update from Apple is installed through iTunes, which will require you to re-jailbreak the phone whenever an update is installed or you will need to avoid installing upgrades in the future.

Different versions of the iPhone operating system have different issues and limitations depending upon which one you have, so be sure to do your homework on the exact version of the phone and firmware installed before you decide to jailbreak your iPhone.

There are lots of other potential issues with jailbroken iPhones, so unless you find an application that you just can’t live without, I might suggest leaving the tweaking of iPhones to the nerdy, tech savvy, “look what I can do with my iPhone” crowd!

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Author

Posted by Ken of Data Doctors on January 2, 2009