Is jailbreaking a device becoming acceptable?

Once upon a time, jailbreaking a smartphone or tablet was frowned upon, but it's becoming increasingly permissible.

A little mentioned fact about the new Google CR-48 notebook is that it's designed to be jailbroken. This was announced by Sundar Pichai, during Google Chrome's recent preview presentation. There's a switch on the inside of the battery compartment that slips the unit into developer mode.

You can then get a virtual console (such as a Linux command-line prompt), from which the world is your oyster; you'll be able to install new software, update the system, or wipe the entire disk, if you so wish.

It's not yet clear whether this switch will be carried over into the Chrome OS notebooks that are to be sold by Acer and Samsung next year. If they stick closely to Google's hardware reference design (which has arguably been the most impressive element of the whole roll-out) then there's a chance they will.

And have you got one of those nice new Galaxy Tab tablets? Want to jailbreak it? Well, you can, but it's really hard work. You have to search for an application in the Android Marketplace and install it. That's all.

How about a Windows Phone 7? Sure, you can jailbreak it and install all those wonderful non-approved homebrew apps. But, hang on. Microsoft is working with the jailbreakers to make everything legitimate and above board. There's no need to jailbreak the phone.

When did the world shift on its axis? It's not necessarily a question of when jailbreaking became so easy, as it is a question of when it became so acceptable.

After all, it hasn't always been this way. Apple is responsible for indirectly inventing the term 'jailbreak' when used in this context, and the great Steve still considers jailbreaking to be a sin, even if Apple has mysteriously removed a component of iOS that was designed to detect jailbreaks. However, it's no longer illegal to do so. You'll just void your warranty.

It could be the case that companies like Google and even Microsoft have been deliberately cool about jailbreaking in order to differentiate themselves from Apple, and the stigma that has arisen surrounding not only hardware and software lockdown, but also being locked to one network.

Android's open source status might also have helped, bearing in mind any kind of device restriction is severely frowned upon in the world of free software.

However, from a business point of view, jailbreaking devices like smartphones or tablets may well become essential as they become more and more prevalent in the workplace.

This runs counter to many arguments put forward about security, but there's little chance that the walled garden provided by an official app store will offer all the software that a business requires, particularly if they rely on bespoke software created for a specific business need. Additionally, a business can't rely upon the manufacturer to update the operating system in a timely fashion if a critical flaw is discovered. Considering that businesses have to abide by regulations regarding data security, this is a major concern.

Of course, we might expect the corporate market to be targeted by a range of phone and tablet devices with these kind of features built-in, but so far very little differentiation has been made between corporate and consumer-grade devices. As far as manufacturers are concerned, it's all one big marketplace.

So my advice is to jailbreak any devices that your business owns if you see the need. At the moment, it's just about the only way to have the full control over them that's necessary for a business environment, and it's just not the crime that it used to be.

Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com and his Twitter feed is @keirthomas.

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Keir Thomas

PC World (US online)
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