I’ve noticed a lot of buzz on Twitter about the monetary motivations behind jailbreaking and how that relates to whether iOS jailbreaks will continue, and it seems like there may be some confusion about the economics of jailbreaking. This is hardly surprising, because it’s an underground market, so there’s not a lot of research or analysis that goes into it. Still, it might not hurt to take a look at the basics.
Jailbreaking isn’t a multi-billion dollar industry, but can be a fairly lucrative — and not just for hackers, but also for the people who sell products and services for jailbroken devices. As of 2011, Cydia was seeing about $10 million in annual revenue. College kids were making upwards of $50,000 a year jailbreaking devices for their friends and fellow students.
Jailbreakers themselves can turn a decent profit too. There are three primary ways you could make money off of a JB:
1. Sell an exploit.
An iOS exploit is worth about $250,000. Browser vulnerabilities in Chrome, Safari, and Firefox can also pull in somewhere between $80,000 – $200,000, according to research compiled by Forbes. However, a lot of the best jailbreakers — especially iDevice jailbreakers — don’t sell exploits on principle.
A lot of people want to be able to jailbreak their devices, whether it’s to get pirated apps or customize the device in ways they normally wouldn’t be able to. So a lot of people are willing to support the folks who actually have the talent to jailbreak.
Plus, anyone who sells a product or service that relies on a jailbreak is really interested in making sure the latest jailbreak comes out quickly. Funding jailbreakers generally yields a pretty good ROI for them.
3. Ad revenue.
A big jailbreak is a huge popularity boost. With so many more people visiting your website, ad revenue spikes.
Of course, donations and ad revenue aren’t going to make you millions — in fact, hardly anyone in the jailbreaking industry, hacker or otherwise, is making millions off of it. And if you factor in the number of hours jailbreakers spend looking for exploits, the revenue starts to look pretty paltry.
And for the guys who are really good, especially the guys who work on Apple devices, jailbreaking has never been about the money. If they just wanted to make money, they’d sell exploits. They don’t.
So jailbreaking isn’t something you can look at purely from a perspective of supply and demand, of profits and margins and ROI. Jailbreaks are driven by a lot of different factors — a lot of unpredictable human factors. Great jailbreakers generally do it out of the love of the game, and that can be both a purer and a fickler motivator than money. Sometimes people get bored, sometimes they need something new — pod2g, for example, recently built an app. Plus, jailbreaks are several parts luck. Sometimes someone gets lucky and finds a great exploit right away, and sometimes it takes months and months of searching. So while jailbreakers may want to please their fans, market demand usually has very little to do with their motivation.
This is one reason why the advent of JB-free methods of app piracy probably won’t have much effect on whether we continue to see jailbreak releases. It’s long been suspected that the majority of iOS jailbreakers only do it in order to obtain pirated apps. With the rise of methods to pirate apps without needing a jailbreak, there’s some speculation that the demand for jailbreaking may considerably decline — which could lead to the decline of jailbreaking itself. But the developers who work on iOS don’t care about having a massive demand; they’re not in it for the profit. So they’re not likely to quit just because there are fewer people using their exploits.
That said, jailbreaking is an ecosystem, and there are some people who do care about making a profit — like anyone who sells apps and services for jailbroken devices. This includes the service of making sure users can distribute and acquire apps for their jailbroken devices — i.e. Cydia. Saurik could hardly run Cydia if it didn’t at least pay for itself. And a long wait for a jailbreak means less traffic and less revenue, as users opt to upgrade to a non-jailbreakable version of iOS or (gasp!) move to Android. If the demand for jailbroken apps and services declines considerably, the jailbreaking community may see fewer apps and services available — which could become a self-feeding downward spiral. Of course, demand depends largely on JBs being available. So if jailbreaks continue to be released at their current rate, Cydia may eventually lose too many users in between jailbreaks to sustain itself.
Still, Cydia always sees a significant bump whenever a new jailbreak is released, and saurik recently reported that Cydia is installed on over 22.7 million devices.
An even bigger boon to the JB industry than the iOS 6 release would be a killer new app for jailbroken devices — something on par with MyWi. Remind everyone why they love to jailbreak in the first place.