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HTC's bootloader decision: what does it mean?

HTC's bootloader decision: what does it mean?

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When HTC CEO Peter Chou personally announced last night that his company had heard the demand for unlocked bootloaders and would respond by leaving them unlocked going forward, it generated a level of instantaneous emotion and enthusiasm across the internet that I very rarely see. In less than 10 minutes, HTC's Facebook post had generated over 600 comments -- a comment per second -- and we'd been contacted on our tips line a half-dozen times (no small feat for a humble temporary site that isn't really posting a ton of news at the moment). Needless to say, it's perceived as a very big deal.

Of course, the kinds of folks who are reading and writing about technology at 9PM on a Thursday night represent a very unique group: we're enthusiasts, and we care deeply about having access to powerful hardware that we can customize in any way we choose. We want carriers and software to get out of the way. But if you walked into an AT&T store, a Sprint store, or a Best Buy Mobile location and shouted, "hey, everyone -- HTC's not locking bootloaders anymore," odds are good you'd get a few puzzled looks and little else (well, you'd probably get escorted out by security, but that's another story entirely).

Your typical smartphone consumer just wants a cool-looking device that "can browse websites and do email." There's nothing wrong with that; you don't have to be an enthusiast to want a smartphone. And I'll fall back on my old standby of a car analogy here: most of us don't put custom rims or cold-air intakes on our rides, we just want a nice car that can reliably get us from point A to point B. Furthermore, comScore had smartphone adoption among US mobile subscribers at just 27 percent as of December -- and though that number is growing rapidly, first-time buyers are even less likely to tinker than those of us on our second, third, or fourth device. To put it in stark terms, CyanogenMod -- arguably the most organized, well-regarded force in the custom Android ROM community -- has clocked just over 300,000 installs of its latest major release. Google is reporting that over 100 million Android devices have been activated to date.

So that raises the question, is HTC's announcement really all that important? (Spoiler alert: yes. Read on.)

  • First, the obvious: you'll be able to install legitimate custom ROMs, and you'll be able to do it with less pain. As with any top-tier Android manufacturer, HTC prides itself on a thoroughly-skinned user experience that bears only passing resemblance to the stock UI Google offers. That's fine for most, but the rest of us need custom ROMs to extinguish the skin and get access to deep configurability. Permanently rooting a phone -- that is, rooting it in a way that'll "stick" between soft and hard reboots -- is extremely difficult on devices with locked bootloaders, and establishing permanent root is central to installing proper custom ROMs on your phone. Temporary rooting solutions can be used to run some apps that require superuser privileges, but you risk losing your mods and reverting to factory privileges if you, say, pull the battery. Never underestimate the power of the community -- the bootloader-locked Motorola Atrix, for example, has given rise to custom ROMs using a pretty wild, hairy process that involves a temporary root -- but it's significantly more difficult and there's certainly no guarantee that you'll ever be able to get your device working exactly the way you want.
  • HTC has thrown down the gauntlet with carriers. The American carrier market is unique in the world, largely because of the way handsets are procured and sold -- exclusives reign supreme, particularly among high-end smartphones (you know, the kinds of devices you and I would actually want to buy). Carriers use these exclusives as key opportunities to push their brand and establish and protect revenue streams, and a big part of that involves locking you into a branded ROM. In light of this announcement, HTC can no longer promise its carrier partners that it'll play ball on that -- this is purely a pro-consumer move that bears the risk of becoming a sore spot during contract negotiations. But...
  • HTC has thrown down the gauntlet against its competitors, too -- and might be paving the way for a power shift in the industry. At this point, Motorola is the only major player that continues to consistently lock bootloaders, and they've committed to changing that this year -- but only "where carriers and operators will allow it." In a perfect world, HTC's stance would prompt Moto and others to start taking a hardline position when they hit the negotiating table with carriers for new devices. After all, the out-of-box experience should be dictated by the company that made the device, not the company that's selling it -- and the final experience should be dictated solely by the consumer.
  • They're taking on some additional warranty liability (and bringing carriers along for the ride, whether they like it or not). I personally know several people that have bricked phones in the course of rooting a phone or installing a custom recovery; it gets easier and more user-friendly all the time, but it's still a hairy process that requires a light touch and, ultimately, the understanding that you might eat $500. Thing is, almost all of these folks simply exchange the device with the retailer or send it in for warranty repair. Logically, it makes sense that if you hack a device, you incur the liability for any damage that may occur -- but when the reality hits you that your beloved phone won't turn on, odds are very good that you'll explore options for getting it fixed without coughing up a few hundred bucks. That's a liability HTC seems willing to accept -- and considering that most smartphones are purchased through carriers, it's something that they'll need to accept, too. Of course, warranty repair depots are getting more savvy about detecting modded devices, but I would guess that many (if not most) of them still slip through.
  • It's a tacit admission that Sense isn't for everyone. HTC sinks a lot of cash into design, both on the hardware and the software side -- its acquisition of design firm One & Co a few years ago underscores that. Some people absolutely adore HTC's software customizations. I don't happen to be among them, but I totally respect that they're trying to differentiate in a brutally competitive market with dozens of manufacturers trying to make great Android devices that look virtually identical with the screens off. Now, finally, they're respecting my desire to differentiate. That's a good thing.
  • Having talked the talk, now they've got to walk the walk (or at least Peter Chou does). If HTC decides down the road that they need to start locking bootloaders again -- say, as a result of negative backlash from carriers -- they don't have a clean way to do that. It'll be a public relations nightmare, and the media coverage bears the risk of spilling well outside the enthusiast community that cared about unlockable bootloaders in the first place. I'm not saying HTC has handled this situation poorly -- in fact, I think they did exactly what they needed to do here by having Peter Chou himself take a firm stand -- but they're in it for the long haul. Power users will bail if this goes south, and they'll do what they can to take their non-techie friends with them.

The fact is, 50 words posted to HTC's Facebook wall late on a Thursday could end up being the spark for a far bigger shift in the way Android phones are designed and sold. For a company that's spent a decade beholden to carriers and platform providers while quietly turning into a behemoth of the smartphone industry, that's pretty amazing.