Jailbreaking is Legal; Now What?

Today the U.S. Librarian of Congress ruled that jailbreaking is legal, citing it as an exemption to DMCA regulations. Specifically, they stated: “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.”

From this summary statement, you might find it hard to figure out what they mean, as the word “jailbreaking” never appears. To find the full details, including specific mention of jailbreaking, Apple, and the EFF (which sought the exemption), you need to read the Federal Register document. Here you will see that Apple essentially lost every argument that it made. It’s a fairly strong slap in the face.

What will be the fallout from this ruling? With the caveat that I am not a lawyer, here’s what I think:

• By citing jailbreaking as legal, it removes a significant stigma from the process. No longer can someone say that you should not jailbreak your iPhone because “it is against the law.” In the short run, this will likely encourage more people to give jailbreaking a try. In the longer run, it may encourage more developers to offer software via the jailbreaking route.

However, as long as jailbreaking remains a “geeky” often technically-tricky task and as long as Apple remains hostile to the process (both of which I suspect will be the case), I don’t see the status quo changing much. Jailbreaking will still be something that attracts only a small minority of iOS device users and developers.

• Nothing in the ruling suggests that Apple has to directly support jailbreaking. Apple retains its right to develop new ways to block jailbreaking with every iOS update and new hardware that it releases. It will continue to do so.

Apple states: “Unauthorized modification of the iOS is a violation of the iPhone end-user license agreement and because of this, Apple may deny service for an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch that has installed any unauthorized software.”

This one has me scratching my head a bit. Is it still legal for Apple’s end user license to claim that jailbreaking is prohibited, given that jailbreaking has now been declared legal? Could Apple deny any and all service to an iOS device simply because the device has been jailbroken at some point in its history?

My guess is that, yes, Apple can. However, by taking a significant arrow out of their quiver, the ruling makes it a bit harder for Apple to get away with it.

By analogy, could authorized Toyota service providers refuse to service a car if they detected that the car had ever been serviced by a “non-authorized” provider? I believe they could. But it would be poor policy for them do so. They would ultimately lose money (by refusing to service numerous cars that they would have otherwise repaired) and they would seriously anger their customers (who might buy another brand of car as a result).

Apple is not yet in this competitive position. However, if Google’s Android phones continue to improve and gain in market share, Apple may find itself in a similar position sometime down the road. If so, I expect Apple’s stance towards jailbreaking to loosen.

• What would Apple have done if they won the DMCA ruling? Perhaps nothing beyond what they are already doing. However, I suspect they would use it as carte blanche to become even more assertive. For example, they might have sued, or sought to criminally prosecute, the people who distribute jailbreaking software and who provide the networks from which you can download such software.

Thankfully, we will not see that happen now.

• Overall, while I doubt Apple will ever overtly support jailbreaking, today’s ruling may ultimately lead to Apple becoming less aggressive in its attacks. As a result, jailbreaking may become a more reliable and easier to maintain process.

It has long been my position that many of the risks, complications and problems associated with jailbreaking are a consequence of the actions jailbreakers must take to circumvent Apple’s attempts to block the process. If Apple lightens up here at all, this could change — for the better.

But that’s the long view, and an optimistic low probability long view at that.

In the short run, you can expect Apple to continue doing exactly what it has been doing. Don’t expect to have an any easier time jailbreaking your iOS device next week than you did last week.

Update: Based on feedback from Twitter conversations, I add some clarification:

I in no way believe that Apple must support problems with the use of jailbroken software or secondary problems that are perceived as due to the presence of jailbroken software. This has always been the case with all computer products. Apple doesn’t support problems even with legitimate third-party software on your Mac or iOS devices. Don’t expect to go to the Genius Bar and get help with how to use Photoshop. The question is: If you jailbreak your iOS device, and Apple can detect that you did so, does this automatically and entirely void your warranty for any problem whatsoever? Should Apple be able to refuse to service your device?

For example, what if your iPhone’s screen cracks due to a defect in the design of the screen? Should Apple be able to deny a warranty repair if it discovers that the iPhone is jailbroken?

Or, what if the Calendar app on your jailbroken iPhone keeps crashing on launch, for reasons having nothing to do with jailbreaking? You know this because numerous people who never broke their iPhone are having the exact same symptom. You go so far as to restore your iPhone to its pre-jailbreak state. As you still get the crashes, you bring your iPhone to the Apple Store. If Apple somehow discovers that you previously jailbroke your iPhone, should they be able to refuse service?

A strict interpretation of Apple’s position suggests that they might well answer yes to these questions. I would disagree.

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My Non-Article on Antennagate

I promised myself that l would not write an article describing my reaction to last Friday’s Apple press conference on “Antennagate.” I knew there would already be way too much written on the matter for me to want to add to the pile. I will simply say that I believe Apple handled the situation well overall. Beyond that, I intend to stick to my promise.

As an aside, I continue to find it astounding that a minor antenna problem makes front page headlines. But that’s the world we leave in.

As an alternative to my never-to-be-written article, let me offer links to a few articles that largely reflect my opinions — as well as a few posts that are so idiotically off-base that they should have never been written.

I especially liked Andy Ihnatko’s and John Gruber’s articles. I also found Scott Adams’ take intriguing.

In contrast, I do not understand how any sane person could claim that Apple should “kill the iPhone” (as stated by PCWorld’s Jeff Bertolucci) or be upset that Apple was not sufficiently apologetic (as lamented by Slate’s Farhad Manjoo). I’m not supplying the links here, because I don’t want to help these link-baiters get any benefit from their writing.

Enough said.

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iOS 4.0.1 and Signal Strength

The iOS 4.0.1 update is out. It claims to “improve the formula to determine how many bars of signal strength to display.”

From my initial (admittedly anecdotal testing), I can confirm a difference in the number of bars displayed. Whether or not the difference is an improvement, I suppose can be debated.

My iPhone includes the Field Test modification that allows me to toggle the status bar to display either bars or a dBm number. [Note: If you haven't already made this change, you can no longer directly do it with an iPhone 4 (as noted here). I was able to retain the feature by restoring my iPhone 4 from my iPhone 3GS backup, which already had the change included.]

Bar shifts. Using this dBm toggle, I can confirm that dBM numbers that formerly were linked to a 5 bar display, now display less bars. For example, dBMs in the range of -85 to -95, now show 3 bars on my iPhone. Previously, they showed 5 bars.

dBM shifts. Interestingly, iOS 4.0.1 also seems to have changed the way the iPhone reports the dBms themselves. Typically, I get fairly poor 3G reception in my office. Previously, my iPhone 4 would often show dBms here below -100, more than occasionally sinking to -113. Now, my iPhone’s dBm numbers almost never sink below -96 and have gotten as high as -78 (a level previously never achieved in my office). By the way, the -78 corresponds to 5 bars.

Does this mean that the reception is actually improved as a result of the update? Or simply that the method of reporting dBms has changed? It is too early for me to say for sure. But I suspect the latter.

Signal strength loss. The big question: What effect does the update have on the loss of signal strength when you hold the iPhone in the “wrong” way? My quick testing suggests that there is not much change. I still see about an 10 – 12 dBM drop off when I squeeze the iPhone in the prescribed manner. Using a Bumper case prevents this loss. However, because the dBM levels are (apparently) improved, the drop off doesn’t descend to the borderline -113 level anymore.

iPad update. Apple also released iOS 3.2.1 for the iPad today. The update “improves Wi-Fi connectivity” as well as fixing a couple of other minor bugs. Interestingly, the update makes no mention of modifying how 3G bars are displayed. Does this mean that Apple believes that the iPad’s method of displaying signal strength is not subject to the same errors as the iPhone? I don’t know. As far as I know, Apple has not commented on this.

Posted in Apple Inc, iPhone, Technology | 1 Comment

Apple’s Lingering iPhone 4 Problem

With so much already written on the iPhone 4 antenna topic, I want to keep my contribution to the absolute minimum (“if that,” as Chili Palmer might say). Here’s my attempt at brevity:

• The iPhone 4 antenna issue is not going away. As such, Apple should do more than do nothing. Actually, by deleting threads in their Discussions that refer to the Consumer Reports rating of the iPhone, Apple is doing worse than nothing. If Apple believes Consumer Reports is wrong, they should say so. Silence is definitely not golden right now — especially if a fix is still weeks or even months away.

• If Apple’s promised software fix does not truly and totally resolve the issue, Apple should already be working on what else they intend to do.

• Especially if Apple comes out with a redesigned iPhone 4.1, one that eliminates the antenna problem, they will have to deal with satisfying all the people that own an iPhone 4.0.

• I suspect giving a $30 credit for the purchase an iPhone Bumper would be sufficient. It won’t satisfy everyone. Some will complain they still have defective hardware. Or that they don’t want a case. But it will be sufficient.

• All that said, I believe this matter is way overblown. I can exactly duplicate the signal strength shifts described in many of the reports (such as this one). Even so, at a practical level, my iPhone 4 remains connected to the Internet about as well as my iPhone 3GS. I’ve had only the slightest increase in dropped calls — and I can’t even say for sure this is due to the antenna problem. From reports I have read, my experience seems pretty typical.

Unfortunately, as in politics, public perception matters here more than reality.

• I’ve actually had more trouble getting the compass on my iPhone 4 to work. I’ve been plagued with interference messages and incorrect readings. But that’s another story.

• A year from now, people will have trouble remembering what all the antenna fuss was about. Instead, we’ll be lining up for the iPhone 5.

The much larger problem Apple will likely face is competition from Google’s Android phones. I fear that Google may turn out to play the role of Microsoft in the 1990’s. By all accounts, the Droid is not yet on a par with the iPhone (see David Pogue’s review). But its market share continues to grow. And I keep reading blogs from iPhone owners (usually claiming to be fed up with Apple’s “control” policies) switching to a Droid.

The iPhone 4 will surely win the current round in this fight. But, as with Microsoft and Windows, the Droid will improve in the rounds yet to come. The Droid doesn’t have to win every round. It only needs to deliver a knockout in the last round. Eventually, as the Android app library grows and its interface is refined, its more open platform and availability on carriers beyond AT&T will combine to make the Droid a serious threat to the iPhone. Even if it isn’t “better” than the iPhone by some objective measure, the Droid may still be “good enough.” This should and will remain a concern to Apple long after the antenna mess has faded from the scene.

Apple still has the time and resources to finish on top. But it may have to change some of its cherished policies (such as regards its App Store restrictions) to do so. Whether or not it is willing to do this remains to be seen.

Update: July 17: Apple did do something. They held a press conference on July 16. And, in line with my suggestions (although I am certain they got the idea without my help), they announced a plan to give free Bumpers to all iPhone owners.

Posted in Apple Inc, iPhone, Technology | 2 Comments