A Case for Unlockable Bootloaders: How Could Everyone Benefit?

A Case for Unlockable Bootloaders: How Could Everyone Benefit?

The reasons for why root access and unlocked bootloaders are useful and wanted are plentiful. Greater control, customization – if you’re visiting XDA, you’ll have heard them all dozens of times already. We know why we want it, but an argument that is usually left out is why it’s better for OEM’s to provide it.

OEM’s provide a service. Your device is a way to access that service, and whether you agree with the conclusion or not, you can see why they might want to limit your access to modify that service. However, there is a difference between modifying, tweaking and tinkering with your device to match your exact personal preferences and fixing genuine problems.

We miss you, GPE.

When I first received my S6, it had horrendous battery life. During the first weekend, I averaged under two hours of screen-on time. It was a well designed, premium-feel device that I loved in every way, except that it was borderline unusable. In this particular case, I managed to fix it myself by manually installing a different version of Google Play Services, but if I hadn’t, the S6 would have been sent back and exchanged for an LG G4. I would have gone on to tell anyone who asked that the S6 was a great device on paper, but unusable and that they should stay away from it.

Today, I’m happy with it, but better support for Exynos chips and AOSP ROMs would make me continue with Samsung in the future. Now, in my case in particular, root was not necessary, but it would severely cut down the time it took for me to hunt down the source of the battery drain. 

As it was, I first had to figure out why my phone went dead at noon. Plenty of screenshots of my limited battery information and many hours later, I knew it was because “mobile radio active” time was through the roof. Great news! …. except, of course, for the fact that “mobile radio active” doesn’t really narrow it down, as it could be caused by anything that connects to the internet. A few factory resets, and attempts to disable every single pre-installed app one at a time to identify the source did nothing to stop the battery from draining in under 8 hours on standby. Trawling through everything I could find online, I eventually came upon a source claiming it might be a problem with a particular version of Google Play Services (of course…).

So, after manually updating it to a newer version, it finally worked. A proper battery monitor would entirely cut out the process of identifying the problem, and rule out a number of options that instead had to ruled out through arduous trial and error.  

Companies like Sony have won the hearts of XDA users because of their respect for Android’s openness

 Furthermore, running CyanogenMod (amongst other ROMs) on my S4 is the reason I bought another Samsung in the first place. Once CM12 was even close to stable, it fixed as good as everything I disliked about it. So much so, I was more than willing to trade an (at the time) very good camera for early-2000’s webcam quality pictures, and I enjoy being able to just bring up my phone and being able to snap decent quality pictures when I’m out and about.

Custom ROMs are why many of us carefully choose our phones, and power users are at the vanguard of Android

Hell, getting rid of Touchwiz on KitKat was enticing enough that I was willing to haul around a DSLR camera! There is an early version of CM13 available for the S6, but like earlier unofficial Exynos CM ROMs, it is far from fully stable, and it’s not clear if it ever will be. Lackluster ROM performance on the Exynos devices means I’ll be unlikely to buy another Samsung device.

Another aspect rarely mentioned is that the people requesting root methods and unlocked bootloaders are not the same people who would be swayed by the benefits of staying with an OEM-specific Android skin. Instead, they are precisely the type of customers that are more than willing to swap to a competitor that caters to their needs. True, allowing us to root and flash ROMs means we’re more likely to keep the device for longer (and thus buy fewer products in the long run), and one could argue that we’re also more likely to continue with that brand in the future. A recent example is Sony, as the company’s recent development-centric approach has won the hearts of many of us at XDA.

What’s your allegiance?

Brand loyalty is hardly a new concept, and you want to keep your customer happy because of your decisions, not in spite of them. However, such a decision might cause issues with any deals regarding pre-installed software to go awry. Adding roadblocks to root access as a way of maintaining otherwise unsustainable business models is not something we as customers should reward. A prime example is locking hotspot access behind a paywall; a feature that – usually – comes with the phone, yet carriers get away by removing or restricting it by not allowing users to circumvent the roadblocks through root methods.

There are counterarguments, though. First, it is very likely that wanting unlocked bootloaders and having a severe distaste for bloatware coincide. Secondly, devices that are “repaired” by users themselves saves money for everyone. In many countries, OEM’s are required under law to either repair, replace or give back the money in case the device is not working as it should. In the EU, that warranty spans at least two years by law. Additionally, rooting your device will usually mean voiding any warranty claims. True, it might be possible to circumvent it by unrooting, but if you end up in a bootloop (reading this, you’ve most likely experienced the horror of a bootloop at least once), cannot fix it and have to send it in for repairs – they have the right to refuse to repair or replace it. Moreover, demanding payment to access features on a device that is already there has caused US carriers in particular to have an international reputation of – shall we say – “not great” business practices. Allowing root, full control and access to what you have already paid for is marketing and PR kryptonite, especially when your competitors do not. That goes for OEMs and carriers alike.

So which conclusions can be drawn? Giving more control to the users is not guaranteed to translate into financial gain. What we can be certain of, however, is that it would be a show of goodwill. For OEM’s (and carriers who use their own version of the most common devices), it could cut down repair costs and make the product more desirable to us enthusiasts. I don’t think I’m alone in that, being the resident Android-nut in my family and circle of friends, I’m usually asked for opinions before purchase.

Bad business practices are not exactly generating word-of-mouth marketing. But that shouldn’t be seen as a threat – rather, a huge potential for free advertising… And all arguments thus far are given under the assumption that giving customers what they want doesn’t carry enough weight on its own. If there needs to be a financial benefit to do the right thing, so be it. There just might be.

How could OEMs cater to power users without endangering their business model? Is it easier, or harder than it seems? Discuss below!

About author

Oskar Danell
Oskar Danell

Economics student who's hooked on caffeine and all things customization. Buys phones on two-year contracts despite knowing the itch to upgrade will start a few months later. Often finds himself in the constant struggle of deciding between Material Design white and AMOLED black for longer battery life.