There’s been a bunch of stuff going around the web about the Droid X and the fact that it likely will not be able to run custom ROMS and may even be hard to root. I’ll try to describe, in layman’s terms, what this may mean to a prospective Droid X buyer.
What is this root and custom rom thing?
First, having root is like having the Administrator user password on a Windows machine or the root password on a Mac OS X machine or Linux machine. It essentially gives you the right to modify anything on the phone. You could, for example, enable tethering without having to pay for it on Verizon (Note: Gear Diary does NOT condone this practice.)
Second, installing a custom rom is a way that you can continue to be using the latest Android builds long after Verizon and Motorola have stopped providing them for you. The best example I can give is my G1. I am running a custom ROM called CyanogenMod on my phone. The latest release candidate from CyanogenMod is version 6 which is based on the Android 2.2 (Froyo). The official ROM for my phone is still Android 1.6 or “Cupcake”.
So what is the big deal?
According to several sites, Motorola has decided to include something called eFuse in the Droid X. What eFuse does is it checks the bootloader on bootup for certain information. If it does not find this information to match what it things it should be, than eFuse will basically kill your phone. This eFuse thing is hardware and it can possibly be worked around, but would cost the would be hacker a phone every time he messes it up making hacking this an expensive proposition and there is an additional complication; the bootloader itself is encrypted with some pretty strong encryption. What this means is that even if a hacker can get the code off the phone, he will have to figure out a way to decrypt this code. The encryption it uses is pretty strong, so it will take a long time to do this.
What this means is, you can’t tether without paying Verizon and once official update to your phone stops, you are stuck with what you have on your phone. You also can’t do things like hack HTC Sense onto it or get rid of Moto Blur.
Gear Diary Writer Opinions
To the average Joe, this probably doesn’t matter much. To those who wish to hack their phones and to always have the latest Android build on their phone it’s a huge deal. It’s also a huge deal to some in the Open Source community. Android is supposed to be an open operating system and in many ways the Open Source community has rallied around it. Now one of the best phones that runs Android is crippled, in their opinion. This is exactly why most people call AT&T Android phones crap since they too are also crippled in the open source way.
As for me, I am taking a wait and see attitude. I believe no system is unhackable. There will be a way. It just might take the full two years of your contract to make it happen.
There are two sides to this whole thing, and multiple perspectives. On the one hand smartphones are phones, and on the other hand they are computers. I still have working laptops in my house less powerful than my Motorola Droid! So because it is a computer I have the natural tendency to want to maximize the efficiency / usability of the device, similar to installing the Windows Mobile 6.1ROM on my Dell Axim x51v to gain all of the advantages the newer OS offered.
Yet at the same time the Droid is a phone – and for me a critical part of my daily life. This isn’t like having a fun old HP Omnibook around that I have tricked out with various operating systems and so on – this phone is my lifeblood at work and home day in and out. When we were waiting for the ever-delayed Android 2.0.1→2.1 update for the Droid I considered rooting in order to gain that functionality sooner – and also get the other flexibility the rooted OS offered.
But ultimately I placed the 95% need for the stuff that worked perfectly to continue to do so above the 5% desire for cool new stuff. Similarly I have stuck with PDANet for tethering rather than rooting and adding a custom WiFi hotspot app. I really don’t want to mess with what is working so well.
As for the rest of my family (my wife in particular) – they want what works. We saw a news spot on Froyo a while back and she wondered what all of the fuss was about. I still had the Palm Pre Plus as a second phone at that point so I could point to the WiFi functionality and that actually meant something, but for her a ‘feature phone’ with texting, camera and so on is more than enough.
My wife is tech-literate but unlike me she uses technology as a tool rather than actually caring about the tools themselves. In that way she represents most people – they want a phone that will work, that on the day of purchase provides the features they want. Most people don’t come looking for OS updates and enhancements and customer apps and gray-market sideware and so on. And in two years, these people will be looking for the phone that meets their needs once again.
So when I read all of the frothing hysteria about the Moto Droid X having a lockdown policy, I wonder what the fuss is all about – because I KNOW 99% of the buying public really doesn’t care.
But since Motorola is going to the trouble of doing it, you have to look at motive. If you believe some sites, it is all about a Draconian move by ‘the Man’ to put down freedom-loving open-source Android fans.
Does that really make sense? Not to me! What I assume is that Motorola saw too many cases where phones were bricked or messed up or otherwise required too much support because kids and adults with limited knowledge tried to root the phone and failed.
Also, perhaps Verizon is tired of having people rooting to access paid services like tethering for free. Any visit to an Android forum quickly shows that a primary reason people want to root is to install a WiFi hotspot app. And since the people who would root tend to be tech-centric, it only stands to reason that they would be heavy data users.
Either way, I see this as a non-issue inflated by tech sites who like to think of Android OS as their own little Linux, an open and forever free domain where they can do whatever they please so long as they want. That is all well and good, but I personally see this being more like the PSP – Sony has kept patching the device to kill ‘custom firmware’ … not because they are mean-spirited and want to squish real homebrew makers, but because 99% of folks hacking their firmware were doing so to play pirated PSP games.
Android is based on the Linux Kernel. Android is also licensed under the Apache 2.0 License and GPL v2. At least the Android Open Source Project is. This likely isn’t a license violation. Motorola does have a lot of R&D in the Droid X and their’s LIKELY parts that are proprietary to them. A lot of the complaints are pretty valid. However, to the common Droid X owner, it won’t matter.
The first thing to realize is that gaining Root access to your phone can and probably will void your warranty. With that said, Rooting a phone and installing custom Rom’s certainly isn’t for everyone. As Joel stated in the past Rooting became very popular around the time of the G1 and forward. This practice of installing cooked Roms on phones and mobile devices however is not. Enthusiasts and developers have been installing custom software on phones since before smartphones. This practice has now surfaced and become more popular, but certainly is nothing new to the community. If you dig deep enough you will find that most hardware is crippled due to the issues with software and their OS. The Nexus One is probably one of the most hacked phones on the market. The hardware always had the capability to shoot 720P video, use Wi-Fi N, and even has an FM radio, but all need some software tweaks to make them work.
So why does it matter to me? Well first off I am an Android OS fan, and of course love reaping the benefits of an open source platform. Basically Android makes all source code available to anyone who wants it, which allows you to develop whatever you want as far as applications and customization without fear of legal retaliation licensing theft. First and foremost as Joel stated Root gives you full admin access to your phone. This allows you to install any unsigned application and tweaks that otherwise would not be available through the Android Marketplace or the device manufacturer. In the past Root access has allowed me to install custom bootloaders, perform full backups, use different UI enhancements, run apps from SD card, and above all install custom made Rom’s. I have done this with the past 4 phones and plan on doing it to all the phones I buy in the future.
Motorola has decided to make an attempt to stop this process. For most, this is really not big deal. For the enthusiast crowd this has caused some friction among the ranks mostly due to the fact that the community loves the hardware, but now at a cost of not being able to customize it the way they want. I have no doubt that developers will crack the code and eventually gain the required access to the devices to do what they want. Motorola may be trying to curb that by possibly bricking the phone as retaliation to custom software being installed. As a consumer I believe that if I purchased a phone I should be able to do whatever I want to it since it’s mine without fear that the manufacturer will not be sabotaging it as a result. As long as I don’t break the law or hurt anyone else doing, I don’t see the point in stopping forward development and customization on a phone that has been purchased. I agree that warranties can be voided and certain things may violate a service agreement, but this should not be one of them.
I truly do not the controversy with Motorola being a big issue with 90% of the general public. With the native enhancements of mobile OS’s, more and more things are available with every new official OS version. So if you’re happy with your phone out of the box, then this is nothing really to be concerned about. If your and enthusiast, then this obviously could be an issue with you if you plan on buying a Motorola phone in the future. I like changing my Rom to customize my needs and wants on a phone. HTC is probably the largest threat to Motorola and has yet to bring anything of this nature to the market. The hackers will get past this problem but as stated may not be without cost. For now I’ll be steering clear of the Droid X and Droid 2 simply because I plan on installing custom Roms and gaining Root access on all of my future phones. The things that developers have done so far with phones is nothing short of amazing, if they were smart they would consider hiring some of these people instead of trying to stop them.
To people like Francis, this is a deal breaker and it means they won’t be buying a Droid X. To people like Joel, they may have to decide how much they may want to root their phone. To people like Michael’s wife and most of the Droid X purchasers, they just don’t care. Even as we compiled this article, Boy Genius Report is saying this is not as bad as it may seem. The Droid X is still sure to be a great Android device. It just may not be a hacker’s dream phone.