Editorial: Why Locked Bootloaders Hurt Everyone (And Are A Big Deal)

During the Verizon Galaxy S III fiasco, I’ve seen a lot of people saying “its locked bootloader is not a big deal, we rooted it anyway!” Unfortunately, it is a big deal. Not only for the modders, but for Verizon (or AT&T), Samsung (or Motorola or HTC), and even the consumers who don’t even know what root is. It affects everyone, even if the effects aren’t seen immediately. First, we have to ask “why do carriers decide to lock bootloaders?” There are a few big reasons, some of which are taken straight from an official Verizon statement.

To prevent unauthorized tethering and alleviate network traffic
No matter your thoughts on tethering and whether you think you should decide how to use the limited amounts of data you pay for, it is a breach of contract. It is unfortunate, but true. Rooted users who tether are doing so wrongly. But most tether users don’t hurt anyone. I tethered during vacation due to lack of either proper internet or complete lack of internet. It was really a necessity, and the volume of data I used wasn’t too much more than most heavy phone users. However, there are some jerks that have unlimited data plans and decide to tether and torrent. A single person torrenting or downloading multiple files can bog down a tower. This of course ruins the data experience for everyone around them, which in turn makes the customers angry at Verizon for not providing good enough service. Except it’s not fully Verizon’s fault. We all wish carriers had stronger networks, but it’s unlikely for them to invest big money into strengthening existing markets beyond what’s necessary for a group average users.

Locking bootloaders to stop unauthorized tethering is an absolutely ridiculous idea. Look at every locked down Motorola phone: they have root. People tether with them. Look at the Galaxy S III. It was rooted almost a week before arriving in stores, despite the locked bootloader. If root was achieved, tethering is possible. A locked bootloader never stopped anyone. I think carriers and companies fail to realize that if developers want root, they’ll get it. No matter how tightly you lock your phone, a developer will crack it. Look at the genius 2nd init method used on Motorola phones to flash custom ROMs on a stock kernel. So in this case, locked bootloaders are absolutely useless.

Of course, pointing out how bad one method is isn’t enough. It’s valid, but doesn’t help all that much. Let’s look at an alternative method. AT&T uses network-based methods to detect when you’re tethering. That’s how they catch both iPhone and Android users in doing so. Honestly, this is perfectly fine. They have every right to watch out for and stop those who breach their contract. Is this an invasive method? No, you’ll never notice it and you won’t be giving up any freedom. Is this an effective method? Hell yes. So many people have been caught tethering. It also seems like they only notify those who tether a lot, as I tethered for two weeks in a row and didn’t get caught, presumably because I hadn’t tethered in over half a year previously. However, I’ve noticed heavy tethering users get caught quite often. Verizon, you could learn a thing or two.

To uphold proper warranty service
Verizon says:
“Verizon Wireless has established a standard of excellence in customer experience with our branded devices and customer service. There is an expectation that if a customer has a question, they can call Verizon Wireless for answers that help them maximize their enjoyment and use of their wireless phone. Depending on the device, an open boot loader could prevent Verizon Wireless from providing the same level of customer experience and support because it would allow users to change the phone or otherwise modify the software and, potentially, negatively impact how the phone connects with the network.”
I say:
“Then don’t provide a warranty to rooted users! They know what they’ve gotten themselves into!”

It’s common knowledge that rooting voids warranty. So this argument just goes down the drain. If it’s rooted, deny warranty service. This is not an elegant solution, and should be treated more delicately. If you’re rooted, and your LCD panel burns out, I think you should be eligible for a warranty replacement. But alas, it isn’t that easy. So a denied warranty is probably the easiest solution. Fortunately, people do have options. My rooted Galaxy S II had a damaged radio, so I flashed it back to stock and got a warranty exchange. The damage had nothing to do with root, so I felt I deserved an exchange for a defective product.

This doesn’t get rid of risk for Verizon. What if someone who doesn’t know better (and thus shouldn’t be rooting) overclocks their processor so high, it ends up damaging components? The phone won’t turn on, Verizon can’t tell if it’s rooted, and they’ll have to replace it. But there will always be that risk, with any phone. Locked bootloader or not, the risk will stay the same. This also applies outside of the Android world. Let’s not deny that there are ways to brick an iPhone.

However, locked bootloaders create a much bigger problem for both the carrier and the phone manufacturer. The locked bootloader means the root and mod method will be more complicated. That won’t stop a single person. If someone wants to root, they will. Locked bootloader or not, they’ll do it anyway. And guess what that more complicated procedure creates? A bigger risk for a bricked phone. Thus more returns for the carrier and manufacturer to deal with. Meaning more money lost. Guys, mission accomplished. I’m proud of you.

To keep their modifications on the phone
My first example lies in the notification area of both the Verizon Galaxy S III and the DROID Incredible 4G LTE. When wifi is off, you have a persistent notification saying “Wifi off. Tap to turn wifi on.” This is one of the most annoying carrier modifications I have ever experienced. I have OCD about keeping my notification area clear, and having a permanent icon there…. it drives me insane. I understand why they would put that in, to encourage users to stay on wifi networks. Sure, it’s a “You’re paying for our service but we’re gonna bug the hell out of you to stop using it!” type of thing, but it’s a good thing for novice users with data caps. However, the lack of an option to turn it off is a crime. But when you DO turn on wifi, there is a persistent notification that tells you what network you’re on. That doesn’t even make any sense anymore!

But these and other modifications made by carriers are very important to them, and they know root will give people the chance to remove them. And they do not want that. They want to take away our freedom and force these annoying modifications down our throats. Once again, a locked bootloader never stopped a developer from removing these modifications. Isn’t your carrier branding on our phones enough?

To create a better experience for our customers
Sure, you’d think that this would be completely irrelevant to the customers that don’t even know what root is. It isn’t. It hurts them, though they don’t directly notice it. I already brought up that it costs money for the carrier to replace bricked phones, and the amount of bricks will jump with more complicated root methods associated with locked bootloaders. It also costs them more to invest in locking the bootloader. In Verizon’s case, getting the bootloader locked on one variant of the S III probably wasn’t cheap and easy. Add to that the costs of educating employees to be aware of locked bootloaders (hopefully), plus some minor public outrage, and the normal customers who haven’t a clue what a bootloader is may suffer with higher costs down the line. It doesn’t seem significant now, but it may very well be down the line.

Final thoughts
Locked bootloaders hurt everyone, including the carrier who decided to enforce them. There is no way around this. Everyone loses. Even the manufacturer of the phone loses. When a carrier asks them to lock a bootloader, they get bad press, more returns from bricks, and just a diminishing public opinion (I’m looking at you, Motorola).

And to top it all off, the worst part is that a locked bootloader will not stop anyone. People will continue rooting, modding, tethering, so your damn locked bootloaders not only hurt everyone, but they do no good! They just don’t WORK like you want them to, so just give up. The developers will always win, no matter how hard you try. Embrace that, and you could make a lot more money (we know that’s all you want anyway). Oh, and thanks for not listening to your loyal customers. Guess we’ll have to yell a little louder.

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