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Summary:

The T-Mobile G2 is a phone that may have a first for such handsets: an internal cop that detects if the user “roots” the phone and if so, undoes it. Hackers working the G2 have rooted the phone, but the modification gets removed automatically.

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The T-Mobile G2 is an Android phone that may have a first for such handsets: an internal cop that detects if the user “roots” the phone and if so, simply undoes it. Hackers working on rooting the G2 have discovered that the phone can be rooted, but after a short bit, it removes the modification and restores the phone as it was prior to the rooting. This is a first, and has some in the tech world upset over the inability to make such modifications to the G2.

The process of rooting a phone is the first step that enables modifying the OEM’s software, usually to apply custom ROMs that do things the stock software won’t allow. It is a granting of “superuser” status, that permits doing anything desired to the phone’s software stored in the firmware, including replacing it entirely. It’s the same concept as that found in Linux systems, which is the origin of the term “rooting”.

I’ve reported on the world of custom ROMs and won’t rehash that at this time. It’s rampant in the Android world, primarily due to the ease with which stock phone ROMs can be replaced. Since rooting the phone is the first step, OEMs and phone carriers take a dim view of the process. Many Android phone owners can attest that once you root your phone, sanctioned software updates getting pushed over-the-air (OTA) are a thing of the past. A rooted phone can be detected, and standard updates are usually disabled for such handsets.

When a new phone hits the market, sometimes even before that, the hackers go to work establishing valid procedures for rooting the phone. These procedures vary for each model, and it’s often a race to see who can root the phone first. The G2 was no different, but those trying to root the phone quickly discovered something new. The G2 can be rooted, but not for long, as the phone removes the root all by itself. Either the hardware or the system software looks for root access, and removes it once found.

While the process the G2 uses for internal policing of the software is new, the concept is not. Motorola came under fire when it was discovered its Droid X handset has eFuse hardware technology that can render a phone unusable if the system software is modified by the user. The company issued an official statement that clarified this technology would not be used to “brick” a modified phone, but modified phones would fail to run properly until such time as the official software had been reinstalled.

Whether a phone owner has a right to modify the system software as desired is not as clear as one might think. I’ve dabbled in rooting phones in the past, and personally I like the ability to customize my phones. I do appreciate the conundrum this presents to phone carriers and handset OEMs, however. There can be a real cost to the carriers to support phones with improper modifications; the online discussion forums are rife with discussions on how to put a (non-working) modified phone back to a proper system state for the purpose of returning it to the carrier for replacement.

It’s not just rooting the phones or flashing custom ROMs at issue here. There are firmware modifications for most phones that replace a phone’s radio stack with modified versions. This enters into an area that carriers can’t be happy with, as it has a direct impact on the very network that other customers are paying to use. Plus every phone’s system software, especially the radio stacks, must get FCC (or international equivalent) approval that the phone meets standards. That approval goes out the window for modified versions that the user installs.

It’s easy to understand why the companies might take steps to either make hacking the phones difficult, or in the case of the G2, self-correcting. While that flies in the face of our natural consumer desire to do what we want with products we purchase, there are a lot of other factors at play. There’s one thing I’m confident we’ll see with this new protection on the G2: It will be broken. It may take longer than usual for the enthusiasts to get past the protection, but they will.

Image credit: flickr user hoyasmeg

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  1. g2 order canceled

    u.s. galaxy tab minus voice order canceled

    dell streak minus ability to install 3rd party apps order canceled

    carriers, observe the trend:

    subtracted expected services = less $$$ for you

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  2. Why the hell do they do this kind of crap? It’s like DRM, it’s just a hindrance for everyone and it causes more problems than it solves.

    I wonder how much money they poured into this stupid block that’s gonna be broken anyway.

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  3. I bought the G2 and the Vibrant (Galaxy S) and tried them both out for a while. The G2 is going back tomorrow. I came to that decision before the root problems came to light. The deal breaker was its poor reception compared to all of my other phones. Many times the other phones would have three bars and the G2 would have no reception. If I had known that HTC had placed countermeasures to block hacking I would have canceled the order before it it even shipped. I can see both sides, but I’m on the hacking side of things so it is most important to me. I wish this would noticeably hurt their sales, but it wont. Lets hope HTCs bad idea will beaten quickly to prove that they are wasting their time. Or better, stop them from being able to upgrade the device. HTC had to leave a back door to update the device. Their dream of blocking root access will be foiled once that back door comes to light. I hope that extra R&D was cheap because i expect it will buy them a week or so. If you build a challenge, people will show up to beat it. Its what people do.

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    1. I doubt this was done by HTC. None of their other phones have this and there are a lot of them.

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      1. the phone has a hardware chip on the board thats doing this.

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    2. All this does is block the pedestrian hackers. Those that are giving it a go.
      Usually the ones that brick their phones panic and bring back to the carrier.
      To that end the carriers get what they want. For the most part I am astonished by the number of Android users that are satisfied with their phone in its stock mediocre state. You have to remember those of us who follow tech blogs like jkontherun are not the norm.

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  4. Verizon is getting out of control.

    Blocking jailbraking. Installing crapware on everyone’s phones. They are too powerful.

    In fact it’s a bit sad that the ‘Big 4′ wireless networks in the United States are so powerful. Europe doesn’t have this problem. At least not to that extent.

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    1. The G2 is actually carried by T-Mobile. HTC has responded to this issue by stating it has no idea where this protection originated as they had nothing to do with it. That would put the suspicion on T-Mobile.

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      1. Agreed. This all goes back to the nature of carrier-modified, subsidized handsets. Except it seems US carriers are now beginning to figure out newer ways to differentiate, or as they prefer, “dumb down” their “branded” handsets from the full-price vanilla originals. Buy a factory-unlocked GSM handset anywhere outside the US and I doubt you will see this same problem occur. It’s why I avoid subsidized smartphones and cough up the extra for a factory original – you get what you pay for!

        FWIW I’ve yet to root my TP2, as I’m very happy with the stock ROM and what it does. I’m not looking for any OTA updates either, since my handset is an import model not supported by my carrier. On the plus side, it’s completely unlocked, usable with any SIM, and guaranteed to work with the the barrage of cooked ROMs already in use.

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  5. James – I am surprised you are buying the carrier line on this. There is zero evidence that custom rom’s are messing with the experience for other users. Just carrier scare talk. The upgradeable and open-source nature of Android phones is what makes them so desirable to the tech crowd. Take that away and you just have a poor Iphone imitation.

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    1. Oh, I’m not buying their line, I just see both sides of the issue. I love the open-source nature of Android and have long customized my phones as I see fit. There are complicated sides to this, though, I am willing to admit.

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  6. It looks like the issue with the G2 is a portion of the internal memory is write protected. This flashes the user editable portion of the memory at reboot, effectively eliminating any changes–such as rooting. To gain permanent root, the community will have to figure a way to defeat the write protection on the internal memory.

    I’m not an Android fanboy, but I am watching this process closely. If this type of protection works, then it could fundamentally alter the way all gadgets are protected.

    I am honestly about sick and tired of buying something and not being able to do what I want with it. It’s not because these devices can’t be used for the hacked function, it’s that the carriers might lose a penny here or there because of marketing agreements. I’m sure M$ isn’t happy that Verizon users find a way to get rid of the Bing branding, so Verizon has to implement harsher DRM to stop it. AT&T might lose money if you delete the AT&T navigator app from the phone you bought, so they make sure you have to brute force remove any crapps they pre-install.

    Why don’t the carriers and the phone manufactures just lease handsets to us. At least that would make their disdain for preventing alterations more rational. Of all the major phone manufactures, I think Nokia is the one who has it (most) right. They are moving away from the subsidized carrier relationships to selling unlocked phones. My next phone will be an unlocked model. No crapps that I can’t uninstall and no henious branding in my face all of the time.

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  7. Fantastic post.

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  8. T-Mobile has responded to the G2 situation. They are blaming HTC:

    Code-Level Modifications to the G2

    As pioneers in Android-powered mobile devices, T-Mobile and HTC strive to support innovation. The T-Mobile G2 is a powerful and highly customizable Android-powered smartphone, which customers can personalize and make their own, from the look of their home screen to adding their favorite applications and more.

    The HTC software implementation on the G2 stores some components in read-only memory as a security measure to prevent key operating system software from becoming corrupted and rendering the device inoperable. There is a small subset of highly technical users who may want to modify and re-engineer their devices at the code level, known as “rooting,” but a side effect of HTC’s security measure is that these modifications are temporary and cannot be saved to permanent memory. As a result the original code is restored.

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    1. “…modifications are temporary and cannot be saved to permanent memory. As a result the original code is restored.”

      That effectively would kill any ability to do a firmware upgrade – would a branded handset really be this handicapped?

      Finger-pointing is one thing, but locking a smartphone down to prevent necessary ROM updates and manufacturer firmware upgrades is just plain silly – not even the iPhone goes to that extreme.

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  9. Seems to be a buggy controller according to cyanogen:
    http://pastebin.com/cm75Z9UA

    So it’s just T-mobile talking out their bums.

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  10. Its more likely that the changes are detected and sent to T-mobile and then they do an over the air activation to blow out your changes. When you overwrite the code on a eprom or a hard coded device nothing is going to change it back unless it is pushed to the device somewhere. So far the G2 is the best I’ve seen and used for apps. You have to be smarter than a mac user to get benefit out of it though.

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