July 25, 2014

Reasons for Root

When new Android devices show up, one of the first questions raised is: “can we run our own firmware?” And, if that’s not first overall, then the first question is probably “how do I get root access?”. After all, those two are somewhat related — you sometimes need root to flash alternative firmware, and alternative firmware may well give you root access.

There is little question what benefit this provides to some users: full control over their devices.

What is not clear, though, is why a device manufacturer should want to do this in the first place.

Case in point: Motorola. They have been raked over the coals recently by a vocal set of Milestone owners who are peeved that the DROID can have replacement firmware and the Milestone cannot. In reality, “normal practice” for Motorola is to prevent “a non-Motorola ROM image from being loaded” — the Milestone will not be alone.

If we, the community, want hardware manufacturers to more routinely allow users the ability to gain root or flash their phones with replacement firmware, we need to speak to them in business terms. How will offering these abilities help hardware manufacturers sell more devices, reduce technical support costs, or otherwise make more money than they are today?

I have a few ideas, but this post really is to solicit input from you. How do you think device manufacturers can benefit from granting root/firmware capabilities? Add comments on this post, and I will organize the ideas (and add my own) in a later follow-up post.

The ground rules:

  • I want business and economic arguments. While there are moral and ethical reasons for offering users full control over their devices, that is unlikely to sway most manufacturers. Remember: we need to speak their language.
  • Act like professionals. In business, it helps to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • That being said, both carrots and sticks are valid suggestions. If you can make a plausible argument that, say, failure to allow replacement firmware violates some license somewhere, that’s worth noting. I’m hoping we come up with many more carrots than sticks, of course.
  • Do not overestimate the size of the current modding community. Yes, tens of thousands of people are using Cyanogen and related ROMs. However, that is on a base of millions of Android devices and tens (maybe hundreds?) of millions of smartphones. Even if all current modders were to race out and switch to some specific manufacturer’s devices en masse, that may not “move the needle” very much. So, arguments of how much the modding community will value a more open policy need to indicate how that policy — and the community — will grow that base to be a more significant number.

With that, it’s over to you. What business reasons does a manufacturer have to switch to an open root/firmware poilcy?