Apple jailbreaking verdict: what happens next?

As we reported earlier this week, a revised interpretation of copyright laws means it is now legal to jailbreak an iPhone: that is, to modify it so it can run any software, including apps not approved by Apple. But the real question is what difference it will make.

From a legal standpoint, the answer appears to be “not much”. Let’s be honest: jailbreaking may previously have been assumed to be illegal, but it wasn’t a law that anyone was going to enforce. For Apple to have tried to get convictions over jailbreaking would have been a public relations nightmare: regardless of the letter of the law, society generally takes the view that once a manufacturer gets paid for a device (whether the customer pays outright or through a carrier subsidy), the owner should be able to do what they like with it as long as it isn’t directly cheating anyone of any money.

From a practical standpoint, Apple’s position isn’t changing. The company has reiterated that it advises against jailbreaking and that doing so automatically voids the warranty. That may seem harsh, but is probably fair: while most people with the technical savvy to jailbreak a phone are smart enough to take precautions, it does put security out of Apple’s control, so it’s going to be difficult to conclusively blame them if things go wrong.

What remains to be seen is whether Apple will continue taking steps to deter jailbreaking. For example, it now has to decide whether to continue the cat-and-mouse game of each software update undoing the most common methods of jailbreaking the phone. That raises some intriguing legal questions now that jailbreaking has been declared legitimate. Does Apple have the right to undo a legal action performed by a handset owner? And what, if any, legal obligation does Apple have to make software updates available to all customers: are people who don’t want their jailbreaking undone still entitled to the latest operating system, or are updates simply a discretionary bonus?

The people with the most to gain from the ruling appear to be the major manufacturers of unapproved apps which only work on jailbroken phones. There’s a theory they’ll now hit the jackpot with new customers piling in. I’m not convinced by that though: to me the real barriers to jailbreaking have always been the technical knowledge required and a fear of screwing up a handset, not the risk of facing prosecution. For the vast majority of iPhone owners, the 200,000+ officially-approved apps is plenty to be going on with.