An early form of jailbreaking started shortly after Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007, but the practice has now evolved into a lucrative industry with millions of consumers. Quashing many doubts about jailbreaking’s legality, the Library of Congress ruled in July that the practice did not violate Apple’s copyright.
“To be honest, when I first started, I did it for my friends, myself, but it has snowballed from there,” said Lee, who jailbreaks iPhones to enable new screen designs, then “unlocks” them so customers can switch wireless carriers. “I was getting five to 10 customers a week, now it’s 30 to 40. I just had one customer from the Mongolian embassy who was moving to the capital of Mongolia, and he wanted to use the iPhone there.”
The primary jailbreak apps store, Cydia — named after the insect that bores into apple trees — now earns about $10 million in annual revenue and counts about 4.5 million active weekly users hunting for apps. Its dominance in the jailbreak world has grown so much that last year, when a rival store began eating into its market share, Cydia simply merged with the competitor, unleashing howls about a monopoly.
Some developers, meanwhile, are raking in tens of thousands of dollars in sales off their apps, technically called “packages,” “themes” or “tweaks” in jailbreak parlance.
In what might be the ultimate sign that the jailbreak industry is losing its anti-establishment character, Toyota recently offered a free program on Cydia’s store, promoting the company’s Scion sedan. Once installed, the car is displayed on the background of the iPhone home screen, and the iPhone icons are re-fashioned to look like the emblem on the front grill.
Toyota was also the first major corporation to offer an ad to the jailbreaking site, www.modmyi.com, whose traffic and revenue have doubled since 2010.
“We’ve seen expansion across the board. The Toyota ad and theme, to me, meant there was a turning of the tides and that jailbreaking is becoming more mainstream,” said Kyle Matthews, the co-owner of Modmyi.com. “The industry just keeps increasing; there are even repair stores that will jailbreak for you.”
Apple and AT&T have been trying to crack down on the booming black market. Matthews said Apple pressed Toyota to remove the theme and the ad this past week, which it did. Apple declined comment for this article.
In the past, Apple has said jailbreaking the iPhone or iPad might void the device’s warranty. Two years ago, Apple argued to the Library of Congress, which oversees copyright, that the “unauthorized modifications” constituted a violation, and that the company incurs “very substantial expenses” investigating customer complaints about jailbroken iPhones that don’t work.