Here at Cool Blind Tech, we attempt our best to cover technology from not only every platform possible, but also every angle and perspective. In the coming weeks, we will be exploring an in-depth look at a segment of the tech world known by many, but only understood by a few. From podcast demos to future articles, this is just the beginning. Join us as we take an in-depth journey into the depths of operating systems in a way that even beginners will be able to understand.
Please note that while rooting and jailbreaking are legal to perform in most countries and continents, what we are about to embark on could severely impact your device’s warranty depending on the manufacturer. We are not responsible for anything that might go wrong resulting from instructions or guides within this series, and CBT hereby pledges to provide as accurate information as it can to its power and ability. We do not encourage activities which break your warranty, and only provide this for informational and demonstration purposes. Remember: Just because something is legal does not make it “right”. This is a judgment only you can make based on several factors and personal ethics. Ready to dive in?
Ever since the rise of mobile phones, every person in the world has the ability to carry not just a great informational tool within their pocket, but also what is known as a general purpose computer. In simple terms, a general purpose computer is a machine which can perform a task based on ideas of math and logic created by hard-core scientists. These inventors spent decades working up a language which can be understood universally by all devices created within that design. Although differences between computers do exist, there are only a handful of computer processor types, and within the general world this is often split into two variations. Arm processors are used by 90% of mobile phones, and so called x86 ones are found in your desktop or laptop computers.
This is important to the premise of what we are trying to do here. In theory, a hard-core hacker could run Android on an iPhone and vise-versa. The reason this is impossible however is quite simple: Companies are clever enough to place specific protections on what they produce so as to avoid this problem. Imagine the chaos that would be caused by a person who could run iOS on a cheap Android phone at a fraction of what Apple charges for the device itself?
So now you know the secret. Yes. Every phone has very similar hardware, especially when it comes to the processor or brain of these modern devices. Even with Android, yes. Although different Android phones are made by the big 5 (LG, HTC, Samsung, Motorola, and Sony), most of their devices are clustered around the same processor, same display technology, same audio chips, same battery type… Of course, what makes them so unique is the way all of this is packaged and the protection / security measures carefully crafted by each. This is one reason you cannot run Samsung’s Touch Wiz Android interface on a non-Samsung phone without someone working hard and trying their best to replicate it. Even then, since Samsung never releases the actual coding guts behind their software, it is virtually impossible to make it happen. Not to mention, this would be illegal and is considered reverse engineering.
To be clear, rooting, jailbreaking, sideloading, or hacking a phone to run software it is not intended to run is not illegal under most copyright laws. Yes, you are reverse engineering part of the protections created by that company to do this, which is why 90% of time your warranty is void after such a process. To that company, you are violating a contract, those 100-page terms which you probably did not read when you got your phone. But why is it legal under copyright laws?
The answer is simpler than you might think. When you root or jailbreak, you are not doing it with the prime intent of causing a security breach or to reverse engineer sensitive data. That’s not to say people who do so don’t exist, but the primary intent of such an act is to be able to enhance the functionality of your device in ways that might not be possible within limitations placed on you by Apple or Samsung, or whatever manufacturer your phone is. This series will not go into specific details of what you could do beyond the rooting or flashing process. This is because the amount of modifications or enhancements which you could do are numerous and staggering, and because we are not here to place ethical decisions for you. What you do with your device after opening this new gate of opportunity is up to you, not us. This is why I called it the “darker” side of technology: You will have the true power to harness your phone’s processing power for many more tasks, ones which you might normally not be able to do with the stock software preinstalled on your device.
What are some of these powers and benefits? Let’s break it down.
On iOS, the process of being able to run applications not present in Apple’s App Store is called jailbreaking. Jailbreaking is usually as simple as running a program on your computer, plugging in your iPhone (sometimes in a special recovery mode), and pressing a big red button on the screen. Doing so will install a second app store called Cydia, which sells hundreds of thousands of powerful and useful apps. These range from the simple such as themes that can make your device look like an Android one, to ones which might allow you to host your own website off your iPhone, essentially carrying your personal web server around where ever you go. Often times, new iOS features Apple brings to the table have inspirations from the jailbreaking community. These are numerous, like the ability to have folders, or iOS 8’s ability to reply to text messages from the lock screen and notification area. On top of this, Apple often plays a cat-mouse game with these hackers: iOS becomes more secure as the loopholes are patched up and new ones are found with increasing challenge by developers. In a way, jailbreaking helps improve the strength and robustness of Apple’s ecosystem, although you would have to wait for hell to freeze over for them to directly admit this. Jailbreaking might also allow you to disable apps or iOS features which you might specifically not use. Hate having a stupid news stand app on your phone? Sure, you could move it into its own folder, but would it not be nicer to not have it wasting space and resources anywhere? Don’t use handoff or any of the fancy mac-related features? Sure, you could turn them off, but it’s still a clutter to deal with, and some of you might not want it in your settings list. You have to be careful on what you disable, but sometimes doing this could breathe new life into an already aging iPhone, or make a current-generation one significantly faster. Want to speed up the speech rate used by the TTS on the iPhone? You can even do that after a jailbreak, no worries.
Things on the Android side are a bit more interesting. Rooting, as it’s called, has origins even back from the early days on Android. It is called rooting for one simple reason: Root or “super user” access grants you commands and abilities that you cannot have as a simple user. This is not because you don’t own your phone or are not an administrator of it, of course. It is for your own good. If your phone gave you super-user status from the start, other apps might be able to tap into that without your knowledge, and steal data which it could then do anything with. Essentially, rooting takes away barriers imposed by limitations Android places on the abilities of an app. These limitations are known as permissions, and the possible list of them are limited by what Google itself has created over time.
Rooting will not give your phone’s apps the magical power to break out of this box and suddenly access information which it is not supposed to. This is because there is an app in the background which is always monitoring requests for this “super user” access. When an app for some reason decides it needs to use it, you will see a pop-up on your phone informing you that something is about to be run that requires your consent. Think of Windows’ User account control prompts within Microsoft’s Windows Vista and above. Of course, if you trust an app to do what it is supposed to, you can add it to a list and you won’t be prompted to accept or deny requests from it — although you will still be told that it requested this access as a notification.
On Android, your possibilities of what you can do with rooting are even more far-reaching than on the iPhone. In a sense, they are even more hardcore. Phones which are no longer given care and love by their respective companies can suddenly run newer versions of Android, giving you security and often accessibility enhancements. Do you remember that heartbleed bug a while back? If only more phones were rooted, people could have installed a version of Android on them which was patched from that huge flaw. You can even run Google’s Latest Lollipop operating systems on phones which are 4-5 years old, thanks to developers such as the CyanogenMod team. Just as on iOS, you can disable bloatware entirely, and we all know how much bloat Android-based companies tend to place on phones. These often slow down performance significantly, and you might even get a battery life increase by disabling them. As with iOS, you have to be careful on what you disable as the wrong app could forever leave your device with crashes and maybe even prevent it from starting up. You can theme and customize Android even deeper than you could iOS, which gives you such abilities as making your settings app look totally different.
Of course, Android already is more customizable than iOS, so rooting is less of a necessity for many people. To that end, there are many disadvantages as well. Although the security of your phone is not compromised by rooting, it’s easier for you to install the “wrong thing” and get malware or insecure apps. Doing research can help you avoid this, but it applies equally to both iOS and Android. On Android, you can easily brick your phone, a term used to describe it not booting up or working at all, if you perform the wrong steps. This is why we are making this series to begin with: People often times do not know how to follow advanced instructions, and we are here to help.
As mentioned, rooting voids your warranty with most companies. Jailbreaking is easy to erase, as restoring iOS to factory settings through iTunes wipes everything clean. Some, such as Motorola, even sell “developer edition” phones designed just to be rooted. Google encourages rooting provided you know what you are doing — their Nexus line is probably the easiest phones to root. Still, it’s a responsibility that rests on you.
I almost forgot about sideloading. It is a term that denotes installing applications on a phone that are not present in official app stores or markets. Android allows this without rooting through an option in settings > security. While Windows Phones cannot be rooted, sideloading unofficial apps is technically possible as a developer, and is perhaps the only way to install non-Microsoft sanctioned apps. This is a lot harder to do on iOS without a jailbreak, as only enterprise users or developer-signed apps can be sideloaded. We will explore sideloading on both Windows Phone and Android, as especially on the latter, it is often used for the first stages of rooting.
For now, you have a lot to ponder. Is rooting right for you? Would you benefit from it personally? We will publish a lot more on this topic, shedding light on a different side of technology. By the time we have scrubbed all corners of dust, you will have a moderate understanding of rooting, regardless of your disability and hopefully level of technical understanding. While some of this will be advanced, allow Cool Blind Tech to be your guide through these upcoming articles and podcasts. We also strongly encourage performing research on your own. Our goal is to not baby you, but to empower you to find out information for yourself if you have questions. Keep this also in mind for what is to come.