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
Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):
- Why Google Launched App Inventor
- Rogue Devices: The Consumer Influence on Enterprise Mobility, Part 1
- Transient Apps: The Consumer Influence on Enterprise Mobility, Part 2