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?

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  1. 1) Sometimes users can fix bugs for themselves (if only by following step-by-step instructions or using some kind of script). An example of this is the TCP Timestamps bug that exists in Android 1.5 (probably 1.6 also).

    2) Sometimes legitimate firmware updates go wrong. If the user has the same level of access to their hardware as the factory, then it should be possible to get the device working again without an expensive return/replacement process.

    • I can imagine there are thousands of people who share your opinion. However, as described above, that is a very small number to device manufacturers who sell millions of handsets per year. Please read the fourth bulleted point above.

  2. It may stimulate sales. Take the example of the Linksys WRT54G. In its first versions it was easily modded with alternate firmwares. When Linksys made a less capable version(less RAM and less FLASH), they introduced the WRT54GL, which was exactly equal to the last WRT54G version with more RAM and FLASH, targeted to the people who flashed alternate firmwares.

    I'm a owner of a G1 and have thought about replacing it with a Milestone, but the lack of alternate firmwares and the small possibility of adding new features as they are developed changed my mind. Even tough I like having a physical keyboard, the Nexus One and all its modding community seems more interesting.

  3. One valid argument would be simply a marketing advantage compare to their competition.
    HTC has used it with the Sense UI that you can make yours by changing background and more but what if a manufacturer says, here is a device with the stock Android and if you want you can make it really yours by installing any of the ROM available out there… obviously there will be disclaimers about warranty.. but they could help by having a repository of ROMs on their web site with why not recommendation and reviews by users. Also they could approved ROM to help warranty issues. Assuming the device(s) is tailored for this, the "bricking" risk would be minimal.

    I can't think about an existing business model expect maybe some servers that are sold without an OS for the admin user to install whatever they need.
    Another similar example would be WordPress (there are others). You have the default theme and you also find a repository of more (not created by WordPress) on WordPress' website. You could "break" your WordPress install by using a bad theme…

  4. I'm posting from. Rooted Droid, so I may be biased…. but in my opinion the sngle greatest reason for a manufacturer to allow root access is for marketing against Apple. Apple is a very closed platform, exploit this and market even harder the open nature of Android. Make people feel like the iphone is for communists, make android the free choice, make people feel liberatd by people able to do what they want to their phone, when they want to. Sell home the point that apple wants you to buy their software, their products and services. The percentage of people who will root their phone is small compared to the people who will but into the marketing of a truely open and free device.

  5. Peace of mind, you as OWNER of a bought device have the final say about the installed OS software.

    You bought, you own it, you decide, you _are_ root.

  6. Mark, this is a great question. At my previous company, Neuros Technology, we pushed to bring open-source software to hardware. Naturally, most of our technology vendors were very very wary of this, but over time we became strong partners with a major silicon vendor (I can't say who) as a direct result of our open source focus.

    The benefits they saw to partnering with us were many:
    – Experimentation for their products from those without massive R&D budgets, which occasionally resulted in new features developed for "free" that were rolled back into the core products.
    – Significant goodwill towards the company by the developer and hacker user. While these users don't have a lot of money, they oftentimes have a LOT of influence at their companies and in the community at large.
    – Occasionally, you'll have a hobbyist or small developer who builds a product and company, and becomes a commercial force in specific niches. With a bit of nurturing, your platform becomes the de-facto standard for that niche.

    It is very difficult to make a topline sales argument – the extra 5-10K of potential sales may be severely offset by increased tech support calls, etc.

    Note that it may also be difficult to translate the above arguments to a large smartphone vendor. Phones are nearly interchangeable products, whereas differentiating between a silicon platform is significantly harder.

    (ps I look forward to meeting you in Chicago at Day of Mobile!)

  7. many people love customizeability, personality, and ease of use.

    open up the device, and you give them more control of those aspects. you do not necessarily need to make it so that commands are pushed through a terminal. build a smart scripting GUI, that looks pretty, and voila, there’s an app.

    build an app that will auto install whatever ROM you want, from the market. You want sense? you want motoblur? you want android 2.1? it should not be hard to build a script that will autoinstall, to specs configured for your device, as in a ROM building kitchen. only make it bigger than a kitchen. make it a meta-kitchen, where you cook from one pretty stove.

    people like iphone because it’s easy, but iphone doesn’t let you get too far away from the church of apple. we don’t need a leash, just a gps guide that keeps us from getting lost while we walk around.

  8. Being able to be in full control of a phone you bought should be at the top of most people's lists. Unfortunately, its not.

    Bugless Beast rules!

  9. One thing that offsets the relatively small size of those willing or wanting to mod their phone's firmware is that these people are often the ones who less technically inclined friends turn to for advice when buying. Even if the numbers of people rooting their phones is relatively small they have a larger influence on the market by influencing the buying decisions of those around them.
    By offering a phone that allows root access (or even very easy to gain root access) a company could win over this community, then they influence the decisions of their friends/ family/ coworkers when it is time for them to buy.
    The best solution for a large smartphone manufacturer is to offer an easily rootable product without root access enabled. This way those who want to gain root access can do it easily but the company does not have the increased warranty and support costs of dealing with people who don't know what they are doing bricking their phones. This is similar to how Palm has handled homebrew apps on Web OS.

    • "…an easily rootable product without root access enabled."

      Intentional security gaps? That's an interesting idea… I would think it would make the service providers wary of dealing with you, though.

  10. Plain and simple from a developer's standpoint. Innovation and transformation is the key to any developmenting technological survival strategy. Why do you thing the IBM PC is still the most popular architecture today? Yes, Apple has it's weird little cult following but it's a limitted market. That's also the biggest complaint I hear about the iPhone as well. The inability to modify things without jail breaking their phone.

    It's proven, the more access and the more open you are with your product, the more development and innovation on that product. That will translate into real dollars down the road when everybody who can has modified and is relying on your product uses it because they can on yours and not something elses.

    That is what Google is doing right when most of their manufacturers and trying to backtrack it and make it limited. (Except for HTC)

  11. Root access on the phone is fundamentally a feature. It's a feature that costs very little to impliment… in all likelihood, it costs something to prevent root, and such efforts may not even be successful.

    Manufacturers (assuming we are talking Android here, and not the Iphone, where a closed system allows a near monopoly on selling music, applications and other services) are not in the business of removing free features from technology. Phone manufacturers, who most distinguish their products in an incredibly competitive cutthroat constantly changing market, have very real incentives to keep root access.

    You can debate how important root access is of course. I'd argue that it provides benefits for developers, and that having developers able to do more with ones phones can lead to increased value, as with the Linksys routers.

    The real reason that some phones can't be rooted are because of carriers. Carriers want a cut of application revenues, a cut of music sale and ring tone revenues, etc. In addition for charging, some features are of little to no benefit to a carrier… any sort of application which will use massive amounts of bandwidth, comes to mind.

    The real question should be about carriers, and what benefits they see.

  12. Agreed that arguing on an ethical basis yields limited results. I want root because I want education, I want freedom, I want control. Doesn’t a corporation make a priority of satisfying my desire?

  13. Make root a feature. Charge money (hows that for business language?) for it. Justify the premium with increased support costs or need to add anti-brick backup stock ROM switch.

    Compare this to the plentiful retail motherboard offerings to the overclocker community on PC world that coexists with the vanilla OEM products.

    R&D costs wouldn’t be increased. Just sell Desire Z and Desire Z HaXor Edition (marketing ppl, help me out with the name) with the extra backup ROM and different support plan.

    Then throw in the anti-communist marketing sentiment to give an edge to those that don’t sell rooted devices that was mentioned in previous comments.

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