Why Apple Should End Its Fight Against iPhone Jailbreaking

Apple is once again playing hardball with users who have the nerve to try to free their iPhones. It came to light last week that the company is working to patent a system that would allow it to brick jailbroken iPhones, essentially rendering them worthless. That announcement was followed by news that Apple just released a new version of iOS specifically to foil hackers looking to jailbreak the iPhone 4.

Both stories underscore how much Apple wants to prevent users from jailbreaking the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, all of which run iOS. But the company’s strategy is not only self-defeating and short-sighted, it’s also one the folks in Cupertino will likely have to abandon at some point.

First, a little more background: Apple’s recently-revealed patent application outlines a system designed to identify the “hacking, jailbreaking, unlocking or removal of a SIM card” from a phone so the device can be located and its data erased. While such a system could be a weapon against thieves, Apple made a point of including “any action that may indicate the electronic device is being tampered with by being, for example, hacked, jailbroken, or unlocked.” This means Apple could cripple devices that have been modified to use apps not sold in the App Store. (Jailbreaking is different than SIM unlocking, which allows the gadget to be used on T-Mobile’s network, and which is an entirely different issue.)

Meanwhile, the company has released a new firmware update for the sole purpose of patching a hole that was being used to jailbreak handsets running iOS 4, according to the group of developers that created the first iPhone 4 jailbreak. Calling the standoff a “cat [and] mouse game,” the iPhone Dev Team (which is not affiliated with Apple in any way) essentially threw in the towel.

But it makes no sense for Apple to pour resources into such efforts when allowing jailbreaking — even implicitly, with a wink and a nod — could actually help move iPhones off the shelves.

There’s an ever-increasing number of apps available for jailbroken iPhones, and consumers are increasingly becoming aware of them. Jailbreaking gives iPhone users access to apps that would never be supported by the App Store (tethered apps and porn among them), but even then there’s no downside for Apple. Any tethering usage would be mitigated by AT&T’s metered data plans; it’s not like users could truly abuse them. And when it comes to porn, Apple can simply say “We don’t support that garbage” and remain unsoiled in the public eye, even as it continues to ship massive numbers of iPhones out the door.

Also, it’s worth noting a recent ruling which found that jailbreaking the iconic gadget doesn’t violate copyright law, as Liz wrote about a few months ago; it’s far from clear whether freeing the device from Apple’s policies is illegal in any sense.

Finally, revenues from the App Store are a drop in the bucket compared to Apple’s overall bottom line; the company uses the retail channel — just as it does iTunes — as a tool to boost sales for its lucrative hardware business. Apple sells DRM-free tunes and allows users to put their music libraries on the company’s devices because those strategies are good for gadget sales — where the money lies. While it may be true that more than a million iPhone users have jailbroken their devices, Apple’s policies have surely swayed some would-be (or former) users to move to Android.

Just as Apple’s support for DRM-free songs in iTunes was inevitable a few years ago, it will almost certainly have to tolerate — if not exactly support — jailbroken iPhones in the future. So why continue to invest resources in fighting a battle that’s already a loser? The iPhone Dev Team may have given up for now, but other hackers will surely find ways around Apple’s efforts to prevent jailbreaking.

Question of the week

Is Apple’s strategy to stop iPhone jailbreakers a battle even worth fighting?