I recently wrapped up a project that involved the launch of a smartphone and witnessed first-hand how a company came to the decision to lock-down a device. This was despite the fact that the target demographic of the device are “tech enthusiasts” with more technical skills than the average consumer who have expectations contrary to the decision that was made. My observation is that more and more tech companies are insisting that computing devices be treated as an appliance rather than an actual computing tool.
Nowadays, we have marketing departments, legal teams, and wireless carriers wanting to steer general purpose computers away from being multi-purpose machines into an appliance like a dishwasher or microwave that they, not the user, controls. The only difference with the device is that you can only run certain programs that they approve of for very specialized tasks.
By locking down a device’s bootloader, for example, my view is that they’re taking what’s essentially a computer that could run any and every program, then using a combination of device lockouts, spyware, code-signing etc to prevent the user from installing their own software, or even knowing which processes are running, and terminating the processes they don’t want. Mind you, they would have us think that that these “appliances” are simply “stripped down computers” dedicated for specific tasks. The reality is that they are fully functional computers that have been intentionally crippled by the company that has locked it down and preinstalled spyware right out of the box.
With this project in particular, I was astonished just how uninformed people working within the company were about what a boot-loader is and what device-level root access means – even those with “engineer” in their job title, as well as as just how much influence the carrier partners had on whether the device had an unlockable bootloader. Even though the OEM shipped an unlock tool “accidentally” because it’s typically standard practice, it just took a single “no” from a carrier for that tool to be pulled and any ability to unlock the device with the tool to be blocked (I can’t get into the details, but it was an incredibly stupid reason). Mind you that I was simply a social media consultant with no formal technical training in this role and I had several conversations (both email and conference calls) where I had to explain what an Android bootloader and “root access” were, and it had got me thinking about why this obscure topic is actually extremely important if we want to live in a free society.
Unlockable bootloaders are what people expect, especially tech enthusiasts who like to tinker with their devices. In fact, modern smartphones ship with unlockable bootloaders – pretty much all major OEM flagship devices that aren’t locked to a carrier come with the ability to unlock the device, and it’s my opinion that shipping a phone without this option is a user-hostile behavior and ultimately a dick move.
First off, what is a bootloader? Simply put, it runs whenever you power on your device that tells the phone what software to load, specifically to boot the Android operating system or it can start up recovery mode.
Why would anyone want to unlock the bootloader? Well, there’s a few reasons. We live in an age where companies churn out smartphones and only provide 2 years of software updates at best, sometimes even far less, before support is dropped entirely. This leaves users with perfectly good devices that aren’t getting any security updates, thus becoming a threat to their security and privacy over time. No doubt that this is done intentionally to manipulate users into upgrading to the new device that the company is selling, or because it’s not financially feasible to do so.
Luckily, there are communities and volunteer developers like LineageOS that bring in the latest software and security updates from AOSP (Android Open Source Project) to old devices that the OEMs have long since abandoned, thus bringing new life into devices and preventing them from ending up in a landfill. Personally, I’m using the Google Pixel 2 XL that was released in 2017 that’s still getting updates despite that Google dropped support two years ago (2020). However, switching to a different non-stock operating system can only be accomplished if the bootloader is unlocked. With an unlocked bootloader, I can install whatever operating system I wish to install.
However, it’s not just about support – it’s also very much about freedom and asking yourself whether or not you actually own your device. With an unlocked bootloader, you can root your device and run applications like call recording (which used to be a part of Android before it was nixxed by Google), or AFWall+, a firewall application that can restrict which applications are permitted to access your data networks.
As users, we should have the right to do whatever we want with our property. Hypothetically, for example, when you buy a car what if the manufacturer did not allow you to open the hood? What if you were not allowed to swap out any components? If that is the case, then is that car you purchased really yours? The car manufacturer will likely make the argument that it’s for your own safety. “We don’t want our customers opening up the hood of their vehicles since they might break something”. Or maybe they’d say something like “We’re protecting our intellectual property, because we’ve arranged the components under the hood in a very specific manner”. It restricts your freedom and encourages a throwaway culture.
E-waste is a growing problem. 56.3 million tons of e-waste was generated in 2019 alone. I’d argue that the vast majority, if not all, of the smartphones, tablets, and laptops that are thrown out are still perfectly usable for 99.99% of uses. Oftentimes they are tossed into a landfill because the bloated software that came preinstalled on it has bogged it down, no longer supports the device, or it’s simply been abandoned by the OEM where it will never receive a security patch ever again. Sadly, it costs more to recycle “outdated” electronics than it does to manufacture new ones.
Advertising companies then pressure people to think they need to update to a shiny newer device which itself is designed to be obsolete. This complete and utter disrespect for the planet and inefficient use of resources gets hand waved away with green-washed environmental policies and statements of hypocrisy from the company’s PR department where they make the absurd claim that they are at the “forefront of environmental sustainability”.
When I’m looking for a replacement smartphone, I look for three things: 1) a used device that’s in reasonable condition, 2) an Android device with an unlockable bootloader, and 3) a device that has support from a community like LineageOS. My view is that if I don’t have root access to my device, I don’t really own it – Google, the carrier, and the OEM do. Without root access, I am simply the user (and consumer) and the device is merely “licensed” to me to use for a limited time. If I can gain root access to my device, I may install whatever software I wish or more importantly remove whatever preinstalled spyware and adware bloat that came with it that I have no need for.
These arguments also applies laptops and other computing devices. If I buy a piece hardware and can’t use any software other than what comes preinstalled on it or only software I’m “allowed” to us, I don’t really own it. If I buy a laptop and I can’t replace Windows (or MacOS) with my preferred operating system, I will not purchase it.
What it means to truly own your device is having the power and ability to modify it at a system level should you choose to – even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you should have the right.