Huzzah! Throw up the flags! Send off the fireworks! Summon the townspeople! Apple has lost! The people have won! Huzzah!
I’m referring, of course, to Monday’s ruling by The Library of Congress, which explicitly carves out a legal exception for those looking to jailbreak their iPhones. No longer will industrious little hackers (or those who downloaded a one-button jailbreak app off the Interwebs) be subject to Digital Millennium Copyright Act smack-downs over their choice of Cydia instead of the App Store.
But don’t just take my word for it. The provision, thrown down by Librarian of Congress James Billington, comes with a fairly specific exception:
“Computer programs that enable wireless telephone handsets to execute software applications, where circumvention is accomplished for the sole purpose of enabling interoperability of such applications, when they have been lawfully obtained, with computer programs on the telephone handset.”
In short, so long as you’re jailbreaking your iPhone to make it work with a third-party application that, itself, isn’t kosher on a vanilla iPhone, you’re in the clear. I’m not quite sure what you would do with a jailbroken phone otherwise—perhaps smash it with a hammer to test its durability or something--but there you have it.
Now, we’ve won, right? The choice of how and why you use your iPhone has finally been wrested out of the turtleneck-laden hands of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. The people are in control now, and we all have carte blanche to do with our handheld devices as we please! Yay!
I liken this to the classic movie Wargames, whereby the fateful line goes, “The only winning move is not to play.” In this case, it’s the consumers that are caught between the cat-and-mouse game that is prevailing law and common sense versus Apple. And I don’t say that as some kind of judgment on Apple’s business practices per se; it’s just the lay of the land.
On one side, there’s a perfectly legitimate (and simplified) reason as to why consumers should be allowed to do whatever they want with devices they purchase. Here goes: they purchased them and they own them, so why can’t they throw them off a cliff, run them over with a car, or install whatever additional modifications they want to slap on to their devices? Once we pass the point of sale, Apple already has its money; where’s the fairness in dictating how you can use the device that you, yourself, own?
And here’s the answer: You might own the phone, but Apple wants own the experience. Letting anyone and everyone mess with the operating system (or, worse, open it up to that-which-Apple-has-not-vetted) has the potential to give a person a user experience that, for whatever reason, is completely contrary to what Apple has sought to provide.
As always, it’s a marketing game. If your phone starts crashing more, or if it looks uglier when you show it to friends as a result of your custom UI, or if it just plain uses features that Apple itself hasn’t built into the OS yet, then that makes Apple look bad—and Apple hates looking bad, especially when one of its own devices is being used to do so.
Now, it’s my opinion that the very act of making jailbreaking “legal,” as it were, is nothing short of a nuclear warhead in this wargame of common sense versus Apple’s locked-down desires. For it’s somewhat of a moot point as to whether individual modification’s to one’s own devices is legal per the DMCA. Apple, after all, retains the right to make life as difficult as it possibly can be for would-be modders in a style that’s not unlike the rumors surrounding Motorola’s treatment of the Droid X.
Up until this point, Apple has really had little reason (or, perhaps, care) to escalate the situation by employing some kind of “self-destruct” mechanism for those running jailbroken phones. Be it a full-fledged software brick that nukes your phone if a modified firmware is detected, or a phone-home type of situation that scans your mobile device for unapproved apps, there are a number of ways Apple could—and, I fear, will—go after jailbreakers. Don’t forget about the ol’ iPhone warranty as well.
Like an angry dog that’s been pressed to a wall, Jobs will invariably have no choice but to bring the full weight of his anti-tampering ingenuity to bear against would-be iPhone modders. With the legal option out of the picture, what recourse does Apple have left, save for actually doing a hardcore job of preventing jailbreaking on the iPhone? None.
As the popular saying goes, consumers might have won the battle on this one… but Apple’s well-equipped to take the war.
David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software. He did not jailbreak his Android phone.