Few people are as anxious to jailbreak iOS 7 as Chris Maury. It’s not just the usual productivity hacks and customizations he’s waiting for–you see, Maury is going blind, and the special accessibility tools he needs to use his iPhone are only available to jailbreakers.
To help speed the process along, Maury–who was diagnosed with a degenerative vision disorder three years ago–recently joined forces with a crowdfunding startup called Threshold to try and encourage developers to poke holes at Apple’s fortress a bit more forcefully. The motivator: a cash prize, $7,300 to be exact.
As you might imagine, the plan has been met with some controversy. Will it work? And should it?
If past timelines are any indication, iOS users should probably expect to see an untethered jailbreak sometime in the next few months. Maury and Elizabeth Stark, founder of Threshold, realize this. For them, the issue is speed. For users to rely on jailbreak-only tools, the 3-5 month lag between new versions of iOS and an untethered jailbreak is just too much.
So why, some will be quick to ask, don’t visually impaired users just switch to Android, where the sky’s the limit when it comes to customizing the experience? Well, even though Android has improved in the accessibility department over the years, it’s still not as good as iOS; Apple has long been well-regarded for its range of disability-friendly features in Mac OS and iOS. But for Maury, even the best is not good enough.
“There’s a lot of functionality that the blind community gets out of the jailbreaks that you lose as soon as there’s an update,” says Maury. “And you’re just not able to get access to those features until a jailbreak comes out.”
The tool Maury relies on the most is f.lux, a Cydia tweak that lets users adjust the color tones on iOS and reduce eye strain for those with visual impairments. Other jailbreak-only features include the ability to install more accessible keyboards and alter the speed of Voice Over, iOS’s native voice guidance tool for the visually impaired.
“The iPhone replaces a lot of stand-alone hardware devices that used to cost $300 or $600 and are now a $9 app,” Maury says. “But because they have such tight control over the OS, there are certain things that you can’t do.” That is, without jailbreaking.
Last week, Maury and a handful of collaborators launched IsiOS7JailbrokenYet.com, a site soliciting donations for a reward to the first team of developers to come up with an untethered, open source jailbreak tool for the latest version of iOS.
“We’re interested in incentivizing other people to address the problem and work on the problem,” says Stark. “We ultimately think there are people that are capable of doing it and are actually working on it as a result of the fact that we put this out there. They might not have done it otherwise. Some of these people are very talented and maybe can do it sooner.”
Backed by the likes of BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow and iFixIt CEO Kyle Wiens, it marries three popular concepts–crowdfunding, XPRIZE-style rewards and iOS jailbreaking–into an initiative one might expect to be a slam-dunk. Instead, it’s left the jailbreaking community divided.
The most resounding objection to the plan has come from Cydia creator Jay Freeman–known online as @saurik–who took to Reddit last week to criticize the idea of offering financial incentives to encourage a jailbreak.
“The primary problem I have with this website is that it attempts to change the dynamics from one of ‘people who do things that are fun to make devices more open’ to one of ‘people who do things to win cash prizes,'” Freeman wrote. “I’ve seen the effects of bounties in the Android ecosystem, and they are quite negative.”
For Maury and Stark, Freeman’s condemnation of the project is a bit of a PR headache. Few developers are as well-known and respected in the iOS jailbreaking community as the man who built the Cydia app store itself. Still, other developers have been more receptive to the idea. Comex, the former jailbreaker who was famously hired away by Apple after creating a tool called JailbreakMe, tweeted cautious support for the project, saying that financial motivation “might be necessary” to help speed the jailbreak process along. Meanwhile, Stefan Esser, a German researcher who developed an exploit for iOS 4.3, said he thinks the most prominent critics “fear to lose their monopoly.” As is typically the case, the debate continues on Reddit.
“I think Freeman makes a lot of really good points and he’s right that they do have the potential to change motivations,” says Maury. “It allows people who doesn’t necessarily have the skills but definitely have the need–like the disabled community–to incentivize and encourage solutions to the problems that they would otherwise not be able to.”