What’s the Difference Between Jailbreaking, Rooting, and Unlocking?
Jailbreaking is the process of removing the limitations put in place by a device’s manufacturer. Jailbreaking is generally performed on Apple iOS devices, such as the iPhone or iPad. Jailbreaking removes the restrictions Apple puts in place, allowing you to install third-party software from outside the app store. Some people may have the perception that jailbreaking is only used for piracy, but this isn not the case — jailbreaking allows you to do things like change your iPhone’s default browser and mail client. Essentially, jailbreaking allows you to use software that Apple doesn’t approve.
Jailbreaking can be performed on other devices with similar limitations. For example, there is now a Microsoft Surface RT jailbreak that allows you to install unapproved desktop programs. (By default, Windows RT systems only allow you to run desktop applications written by Microsoft.) However, the desktop apps must be compiled for ARM, so you can’t run any Windows desktop programs you already have, although open-source applications could be tweaked and recompiled for the Windows desktop on ARM.
Android allows users to install third-party applications from outside Google’s app store out-of-the-box and doesn’t need to be jailbroken.
Rooting is the process of gaining “root access” to a device. This is generally performed on Android devices, but rooting can also occur on other devices based on Linux, such as Nokia’s now-retired Symbian operating system.
On Linux and other UNIX-like operating systems, the root user is essentially the same as the Administrator user on Windows. After rooting, you can grant specific applications access to root permissions, allowing them to do almost anything they want to the operating system. For example, an application with root permissions could uninstall system applications, install low-level system binaries, revoke permissions installed apps require, and do other crazy things. Almost anything you can do on a proper Linux system, you can do with root access on your phone.
Rooting gets around Android’s security architecture and could potentially cause problems if users don’t know what they’re doing.
Unlocking a Bootloader
Android is an open-source operating system, so anyone can take the Android source code and create their own version of it. This allows custom ROMs like Cyanogenmod to exist. Lots of custom ROMs exist for Android — everything from large projects that support a variety of devices to custom ROMs with a few theme patches some kid whipped up in his spare time.
However, many Android phones come with locked bootloaders. A locked bootloader won’t boot anything but the manufacturer-approved version of Android that comes with the device. Unlocking the bootloader allows you to install custom ROMs — alternate versions of the Android operating system.
Unlocking a Phone
Many phones, particularly phones that come subsidized with a contract, come “locked” to a specific carrier. The phone is set up so that it can only be used on that carrier’s network. If you insert a SIM card from a competing carrier into the phone, you will see a message indicating that the phone is locked and cannot be used with the SIM card.
Unlocking a phone allows you to use it with a different SIM card — either to use a different carrier while travelling or to take your current phone with you while switching to a new service provider.
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