Wait on iPhone jailbreaking...for now

I am still happily using iPhone software 1.1.1—even though 1.1.3 is the current version and includes some cool new features, such as Maps "My Location." Why am I still stuck at 1.1.1? Because I don't want to abandon all the third-party software I've installed, software that I was able to put on my iPhone only after "hacking" or "jailbreaking" the device.

Now before you start posting comments, I am fully aware that there are reportedly ways to successfully hack 1.1.3. I could apparently have my cake and eat it too.

Thanks, but I prefer to save the calories and pass. The biggest reason should be no surprise. Apple will be releasing its iPhone SDK (Software Development Kit) later this month. This will, finally, provide an Apple-supported method for adding third-party software.

I have some hope that the SDK will wipe out any need to hack the iPhone. But I am not betting on it. I suspect that Apple will maintain at least a degree of control over what you are permitted to install. For those who want software not on Apple's "approved" list, jailbreaking will remain the alternative. When that happens, I'll reconsider my options.

But even if the SDK wasn't coming, I'd likely defer on updating my iPhone. For now, I don't see any point in taking even a small risk on the current jailbreaks.

And, to be clear, jailbreaking 1.1.3 carries some very definite risks. Depending upon which method you choose and your current iPhone setup, jailbreaking may: (1) simply fail to work and could require that you restore your iPhone with possible loss of data; (2) break certain iPhone features (including the very My Location feature that would be my prime reason for updating); (3) prevent SDK-supported software, when it becomes available, from working (unless you "undo" the jailbreak).

If that's not enough to keep "jailbreaking" off the table for you, consider that the current methods are not exactly a piece of cake to install. For starters, in almost all cases, if you are already running 1.1.3, you'll have to downgrade to 1.1.2 or even 1.1.1, before you can get the jailbreak to work. This is a multi-step process in itself, and not for the cautious Mac user. In any case, finding clear well-written instructions can be more difficult than actually doing the install. Gone are the days of the one-step Web-based process that worked with 1.1.1.

Finally, there is the deal-breaker for me: there is no clear consensus on the best way to jailbreak. From the perspective of an "outsider" to the hacking community, it looks like a confusing mess. I suspect it may seem that way even to those in the know.

The first publicly released hack for 1.1.3 was posted by Nate True around January 24. Nate was a member of the the iPhone Dev Team (a group responsible for most of the iPhone jailbreaking methods). However, the Team claimed that Nate's method made use of material copyrighted by Apple and was thus potentially illegal (my guess is that Apple views all jailbreaking methods as having questionable legality, but that's another story). Anyway, as a result of this breach, Nate was apparently "kicked off" the Dev Team.

A few days later, the iPhone Dev Team released its own 1.1.3 jailbreak. But don't get too excited. The team pointed out, that this was not their "true" jailbreak method. Rather, this was a stopgap "soft-upgrade" method. The true method, when released, would be superior, with none of the potential problems of the stopgap method.

So why not just release the true method right away? If only things were that simple. The true method was being kept secret. Why? The logic was to wait until after Apple released the SDK, thereby preventing Apple from including a block to the true method in its next SDK-supported update to the iPhone software. This logic presumes that Apple remains unaware of the true method and would work to stop the jailbreak if it could. Plausible assumptions, but by no means certain.

Meanwhile, an update to a program called iJailBreak—and its iJailBreakMobile cousin—arrived on the scene. These utilities offered yet another way of jailbreaking your iPhone. The Mobile utility had the advantage of being able to jailbreak 1.1.3 directly from the iPhone, freeing the process of any dependence on a computer. However, it only worked if you were already running a jailbroken iPhone running 1.1.2 or 1.1.1, so you still would have work to do before you can use this utility. As I understand it, and I admit to have some trouble following all the soap-opera twists-and-turns here, these utilities are not a product of the iPhone Dev Team.

In quick response, the iPhone Dev Team released its own "computer-free" method for jailbreaking 1.1.3. It was labelled the "Official 1.1.3 Upgrader" (as if there really is anything official about any of these methods!) and you accessed it via the Installer utility on a jailbroken iPhone.

Hot on the heels of the Upgrader, a developer named Zibri released ZiPhone. As stated on the iPhone Atlas Web site, this software "claims to jailbreak, activate and unlock all iPhones running software/firmware 1.1.3 (including out-of-the-box) devices. The ZiPhonepackage uses the 'true' jailbreak method that the iPhone dev team was attempting to keep secret until the release of Apple’s official SDK..." However, it is not a product of the Dev Team—and I have seen no "official" confirmation of its "trueness."

For what it's worth, as of yesterday, I couldn't even get the ZiPhone package zip file to decompress on my Mac. It hardly seemed to matter, at least for Mac users, because Zebri's blog states that the Mac OS X version no longer works (assuming it ever did). I downloaded an apparently new version today. It did decompress, but it is still not clear that it can successfully jailbreak an iPhone.

For those of you who are still following all this, iJailBreak 0.5.1 was released yesterday. The unique claim of this latest version is that it can jailbreak an iPhone running 1.1.3—no need to downgrade to an earlier firmware version. However, it does not yet support the iPod touch, only an iPhone. It is apparently based on the ZiPhone method.

So where do things stand now? Well, you can choose among illegal methods, official methods, secret methods, true methods, false methods(?), computer-free methods, methods that don't really work, and on and on. If you want to venture into this world, fully aware of all the risks and hassles, do so. But for anyone with the least bit of reluctance, I recommend staying away—at least until after the SDK comes out and hopefully after the hacking community cleans up their act, gets their house in order, and comes up with an agreed-upon reliable method for jailbreaking.