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Mobile hardware and software are separable, no matter what manufacturers tell you

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Mobile phone makers continue to treat the hardware and software of their devices as one unified whole, doing a disservice to their users.

htc one x CM9_640
htc one x CM9_640

The one thing device manufacturers fear more than anything else is the commoditization of their product. If you, the buyer, start to perceive all competitors within a given market as equivalent and therefore interchangeable, the battle between them is reduced to a price war. Nobody fancies a price war because of two simple reasons: it squeezes profit margins for everyone involved and has a Darwinian tendency to leave stragglers in its wake. Just ask Sony and Panasonic how their TV businesses are doing.

People are starting to identify more with CyanogenMod or MIUI than with HTC or Samsung

Unfortunately for mobile phone makers, interchangeability of devices is exactly the trend developing in the Android software modding community. People are starting to identify more with CyanogenMod or MIUI than with HTC or Samsung. It's a development that's been brewing for a long time, and yet the manufacturers' reaction has been classically clumsy and misguided.

Historically, cellphone makers have relied on industrial design to give handsets their unique selling points. A quick glimpse at Nokia's product catalogs of the late 90s and early 2000s reveals a dizzying breadth of device sizes, materials, physical properties, and integrated technologies. Some had cameras, some had slideout keyboards, and some others had no proper keyboard at all — the variety, even within just one manufacturer's range, was staggering. Today, that room for expressive and fresh design has been reduced by the maturity of the touchscreen-dominated slab and the increasing standardization of internal specs around a central few producers and components (Qualcomm for LTE modems, Samsung for AMOLED displays, etc).

Switching operating systems is treated like a sinful or illegal activity; it's neither

Diversity in hardware is drying up, which is why companies have started trying to distinguish themselves through the software they ship with each device. The quandary for them is that the thing that's being sold in the store is still the physical device, so they see no choice but to anchor the hopefully differentiated and value-adding user experience — the thing that has a chance to make them unique — to the commoditized product that generally looks and feels like every other. Hence why, no matter how much you want Android on your Lumia 900, switching operating systems is treated like a sinful or illegal activity. It's neither.

It's fine to allow software designers to decide which device or group of devices their operating system will run on, but the converse — tying a phone's hardware to a given OS — is far less defensible. You can port Android to pretty much anything with an electronic pulse these days, so technical justifications for preventing users from tinkering with their smartphones simply do not exist.

Rather than admitting their simple protectionist ploy, mobile manufacturers have sought to make the argument that locking down your OS options is done for your sake — in an effort to ensure a reliable and uniform user experience. But to believe that contention requires a simplistic view of smartphone users that reduces them to a homogenous group of technically disinterested and inexperienced phone exploiters. That may actually represent the majority of mobile users, but it’s not all of them — and let’s not forget that the ones who do want to tweak, swap, and customize the software on their devices are paying customers too. In altering the software stack or completely replacing the operating system, these ROM rebels are also carrying on the rich tradition of phone personalization that’s been around since Nokia figured out it could make more money by selling handsets with replaceable covers.

Half the pain of rooting a phone comes from its manufacturer

Ultimately, that’s what the issue comes down to: making money. Phone manufacturers are reluctant to drop the barriers preventing you from meddling too much with their software precisely because they like to keep you thinking that the device and its operating system are one unified whole. Colloquial verbiage like calling all Android phones "Droids" or all computers running Windows "PCs" only helps to reinforce that inaccurate portrayal. Unlike in microwaves or fridges, however, the software in modern smartphones isn't just a means to an end; it's a multifunctional, malleable, and above all, versatile thing that exists in its own right.

If phone companies want to live up to their oft-repeated pledge of delivering the best customer experience possible, they'll do well to hand some meaningful control of that experience to the users themselves. It can come with whatever provisos and warnings the lawyers demand, but let's stop pretending that every phone has a wonderfully specialized and customized OS that can't be improved on. Hell, the only reason people are so eager to chase down community builds of Android or figure out when Windows Phone is next being upgraded is the inadequacy of the shipping software. So if you can't write something better than the amateurs, at least get out of their way.