June 6, 2008 | Shawn McBee
When Apple announced that they would be supplying an SDK for the iPhone, there were mixed feelings in the Jailbreaking community. On the one hand, everyone was extremely enthused at the prospect of officially sanctioned 3rd party apps, yet there were also concerns that the plucky industry built around filling the app gap wouldn’t survive or be needed. When the SDK’s details were finally announced in March, its limitations made it clear that, at least for some, there would still be a need for the illicit underground community.
For most people, the official AppStore is likely to provide just about any application that they could want on their iPhone. Of course, these aren’t typically the people jailbreaking their iPhones, either. Jailbreakers are used to a greater level of flexibility than will be offered by Apple. Don’t expect to be able to change the appearance of your phone’s interface, for example. With over 2 million downloads of developer SpicyChicken’s app called Customize in the last 5 months, theming and GUI tweaking are clearly in high demand. But even after the AppStore hits your software update next week, you’ll still need to Jailbreak to do it.
“Customize is everything Apple doesn’t like,” says SpicyChicken, “they want all their interfaces to be uniform and Apple-ish. Customize allows users to ‘mess up’ their interface and even make it drastically different in some cases.” And it isn’t just Apple’s guidelines keeping apps like this from becoming official, they’ve created limitations into the SDK to keep things where they like them, according to SpicyChicken: “Customize cannot be created using the SDK. It is simply too handicapped and doesn’t provide the necessary functions.”
UI customization isn’t the only thing users can expect to not see in the AppStore. According to Jay Freeman (saurik), the developer of Cydia (one of the AppStore’s “illicit” competitors) you won’t see any apps that aren’t completely stand-alone. Anything requiring access to shared libraries is simply impossible with the SDK. That means simple apps only, nothing that can truly utilize the full potential of the platform.
Conversely, the current unofficial iPhone app scene is wide open. You can have VoIP, IM clients, voice dialers, customization, game console emulators and a lot more that Apple is not likely to ever support. And it’s only getting better with the release of OTA installers like Cydia, which allows for better apps than the most common option, Installer.app, in that it is essentially a port of Debian APT, which allows developers to distribute more robust applications and install any required shared libraries as part of the package. This extra flexibility allows for more than Nullriver’s Installer and far more than the AppStore is expected to.
So, it seems that the Jailbreak community isn’t in any danger from Apple, despite the extra hassle of doing a safety restore (which erases all your Jailbreak apps) before installing Apple’s iPhone software updates. This is often a necessary step to insure that the phone isn’t bricked. Furthermore, when Apple updates the software, it usually requires hackers to find an all-new way to jailbreak the new software, which can leave you without the unofficial apps for days or even weeks (2.0 has apparently been jailbroken for some time, despite the fact that it won’t be publicly available until at least Monday). On the other hand, if you didn’t jailbreak, you’d never have those apps in the first place. Better to miss them for a week than never have access to them at all.
In fact, that thinking has some, like SpicyChicken, asking completely the opposite question: not whether the jailbreak community will survive, but whether they’ll even bother with the official apps.
“I think that it will be very interesting when apple releases the AppStore to see if the jailbreak iphone community embraces it or not,” says SpicyChicken, “So many apps are available now with so much to offer, that I think that many people will be disappointed in what Apple will have to offer. I think unofficial apps will remain very much alive.”
However, the general consensus seems to be that, despite its limitations, Apple’s SDK does have some good features and is easy to use. And there’s no denying the benefit of having applications from the large software vendors that would never develop for a hacker community, such as AOL’s Instant Messenger and game developers like Sega and EA, all of whom demonstrated apps at the SDK event in March. There are often more independent alternatives available (such as ApolloIM) in the jailbreak offerings, but often lacking the reliability or features of a more established product.
In all likelyhood, we’ll see the launch of the AppStore this coming Monday. If you’re a jailbreaker, you’ll likely continue to be one. If you’re not, the AppStore may give you a taste for great apps on the iPhone and entice you to jailbreak in order to see what else is out there. So, unless Apple really kicks open the doors and is less restrictive with what they’ll allow in the AppStore, the rebels aren’t going away any time soon.