What does Gatekeeper mean for jailbreaking on iOS?

The sudden (at least to most people) announcement of OS X Mountain Lion this week came with many new features and talking points. One of the most talked-about involves security and the Mac App Store, called Gatekeeper. Gatekeeper is a new feature in ML that allows the user to select levels of security for his/her computer. The default setting is to allow Mac App Store apps and apps by identified developers who have opted to sign their apps with Apple. The two other settings are Mac App Store only and “allow everything”.

For the entire lifespan of the Mac, third-party software has been a driving force in its success. With the arrival of the MAS and the sandboxing restrictions Apple put in place for applications, many developers were either unable to include their apps in the Store or chose not to because it would have required hobbling functionality to achieve Apple’s goals. However this new feature connects a developer’s identity with the trusted status of the application, which essentially bridges the middle ground between outright malware and the sanitized App Store experience, providing many devs with a sense of relief. How it plays out remains to be seen, but the idea is that devs would no longer have to make the choice of App Store or go it alone, and can offer a high level experience on par with Apple’s expectations in their own way.

But as Apple moves to unify iOS features and OS X features as we’ve seen with the inclusions of apps such as Notes and Reminders this week, it begs the question: will Apple ever allow Gatekeeper to function in the same way on iOS? And if so, what does this mean for the jailbreak community? Apple has quietly taken both inspiration from, and (presumably) umbrage with the moves that the jailbreak community has executed in the past few years, but with the exception of closing exploits to ensure a more secure system has done little overtly to quell the actual jailbreak process itself. It’s mostly a “no comment” situation for Apple, and when comments come, they are aimed squarely at securing the platform first and foremost, not stifling innovation.

There are many legitimate and extraordinarily talented developers working on jailbreak apps that simply can’t exist in the iOS App Store. But what if Apple allowed them the same privileges it will allow OS X devs? I’d love to see a world in which not only do fantastic apps like LockInfo and SBSettings exist, but in which they can be installed with the equivalent of Apple’s blessing, provided that the dev signs the code with Apple and the user is savvy enough to change the settings in the OS. This kind of a move would definitely show that Apple is serious about enabling creative development on iOS outside of the App Store walls, while still preserving the notion that security is a paramount concern for the platform. It’d be a bold answer to the cries of iOS being a closed system to Android’s open one (a tenuous claim if there ever was one) and in one fell swoop obviate the need for jailbreakers to cling to security holes to run apps and enhancements they’ve grown to love. A more secure platform for Apple, and the freedom to really own your device’s functionality even more seems like a huge win for everyone.

Plenty of people have called for “expert settings” on iOS for years now, so this is not a new idea. But the existence of Gatekeeper in OS X and the strive to unify the platforms experientially leaves at least a little hope that Apple’s getting the message.