You may have heard of iPhone or Android users doing something called "jailbreaking" to enable more functions on their handhelds. It's a fairly simple hack that allows you to install more apps on your smartphone and use it without many of the restrictions from the wireless carriers and cellphone manufacturers. (Technically, "jailbreaking" refers to the iPhone, and “rooting” applies to Android devices.)
The process carries some risks to security and the operation of you phone. It's not a decision to take lightly.
What is it?
Jailbreaking gets around Apple’s tight controls of the iPhone, allowing you to install additional programs not found in the App Store. With rooting on Android phones, the process opens up your phone for more functionality — for example, by enabling “tethering,” so you can use your phone as a wireless hotspot for you laptop or tablet.
What's the benefit?
Jailbreaking and rooting allow you to customize your device in ways not otherwise possible. Change the fonts on the device, the appearance of the icons, even the way the device itself works, such as that hotspot capability. If you jailbreak your iPhone, try Winterboard — available from the Cydia app store — which gives you the ability to customize just about any part of the phone’s appearance.
On Android phones, you can also disable or remove "bloatware" — apps that the wireless carriers pre-install on phones, such as the obscure airG Chat social network app that Virgin Mobile locks onto its devices.
How do I do it?
You don’t need to be a hacker: Software applications that are readily available on the Internet make the process, in some cases, as simple as point-and-click.
For iPhone users, first back up your device using iTunes and surf to jailbreakme.com on your iPhone. Follow the prompts there: it’s a one-click process. Android users can set their phones to back up data to Google's servers. Then they use the CyanogenMod app, which offers support for a wide array of devices. This is a more involved process than iPhone jailbreaking. For instructions and assistance, go to CyanogenMod’s support forums. Be prepared to be without a phone for up to several hours while the process completes.
Is it safe? Legal?
While the process is legal (for the time being), carriers and manufacturers see rooting and jailbreaking as violating their terms of service, voiding your phone warranty. In some cases — Apple especially — they will provide no support in the event something goes wrong with your phone.
There are also security issues. Jailbreaking can open up your device to both malware and attack, since it changes how the software works. Malicious apps can be installed easier since jailbreaking and rooting strips away some of the software’s built-in security measures.
There is also the risk of making your phone inoperable. In most cases you will be able to restore the device, using iTunes for iPhone or the restoration software included with your Android device. But in some cases, your phone could “brick,” meaning it would be unrecoverable and impossible to restore easily.
Proceed with caution.
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