Friday, September 24, 2010

Editorial: Firmware, forums, and desperation -- the dark side of Android hacking

That picture above is no joke -- that's where I ended up last night trying to revive my Droid X review unit. It was fun, in a hacky mad-scientist sort of way, but it's also really sad -- a testament to how Google approves Android device hacking with a wink and a nod, but doesn't provide any safety nets for its most passionate users.

Let's back up, though. How did I end up in such dire straits? It started when I had the nerve to update this Droid X to the leaked Android 2.2 build -- a simple process that involved installing the file on a microSD card and restarting. Unfortunately, since Motorola refuses to provide a sanctioned upgrade path from the leaked build to the official 2.2 build released earlier this week, I was forced to downgrade back to 2.1 to get back on track. Based on how easy the update was, this would be a piece of cake, right?

Well, no. The original 2.1 build for the Droid X isn't actually available from Google, Motorola, or Verizon, so I was stuck wiping my phone and reflashing it entirely to a leaked build of 2.1, this time with the confidence-inspiring name of the "the_gift.sbf." Where did it come from, and what does it actually contain? I still have no idea -- but lacking any officially-approved options, I held my breath and restarted the phone in bootloader mode to begin the flashing process. Things seemed to be humming along, until, of course, the phone decided it had a dead battery in the middle of the flash and died. Oops.

Yes, the two hours it took me to sort out the hacked flashing software had been too much for my poor Droid X's previously-full battery, and even though it was plugged in the whole time, it doesn't charge when it's in bootloader mode. I'd gone and bricked my phone. At this point there was nothing to do but take a picture and laugh -- things had gotten wildly out of hand.

That's when I hit upon another forum post describing a way to trick the phone into thinking the battery was charged by splicing the power leads from a USB cable to the power terminals. It was late, I'd been drinking, I had a wire stripper handy... you all know what happened. Miraculously, it worked -- I got the phone to re-flash and boot into 2.1, although the flashing utility insisted that it had ultimately failed. (The battery also reported being 75 percent full, so I have no idea what the actual problem was.) Next thing you know, I was pulling the official 2.2. OTA update down, and hey -- we're back in business.

Like I said at the top, I actually had fun doing all of this. It was interesting and nerdy, and, well, come on -- I totally got to hotwire a phone battery with a sliced-open USB cable while reflashing it with leaked firmware. High five. And a double high five for the Android community, which is about as enthusiastic and creative a group of people as I've ever encountered online. But hold up: I don't trust this phone at all anymore. I don't know anything about the system software I've installed or where it came from, and I have no idea what the leaked flashing utility actually did to it. I can't rely on a device that I don't trust. If this was my actual phone and not a review unit, I'd be completely screwed -- I need this thing to do my job.

Of course, hacking any device carries its risks, and I definitely knew them when I installed that leaked build of 2.2. But Google goes on and on about how Android is "open," and the amazing Android community is a proud credit to how tinker-friendly the platform is at its best -- there's a cooked ROM for everything. We wait with bated breath for every Android phone to be rooted and hacked, and every time we review an Android phone and deduct points for a lame manufacturer skin we're repeatedly told by Android fans that it doesn't matter because "real" power users will just hack their devices anyway. Google has to know that its most passionate users are hacking its OS to hell and back -- it's become the defining strength of the platform.

But hacking can definitely go too far, and Google doesn't provide any way for you to return to the original Android experience that shipped with your device -- you're at the mercy of the manufacturer and the carrier. Some manufacturers are better than others -- HTC provides updaters for many of its phones -- but some, like Motorola and Samsung, provide nothing at all. Once I left the reservation and installed that leaked 2.2 build, I was gone for good -- no official path back to the fold exists. That's not true on other platforms: if I was running a jailbroken iPhone, I'd just restore it with iTunes, and it would be factory-fresh with known software. That's simply not the case with Android, and it's a problem -- Google can't keep implicitly condoning Android hacking and trading on the enthusiasm of its community unless it requires manufacturers to provide restore tools for every device. Sometimes you just want to go home again.

In my ideal world, consumers would be able to download official stock Android builds for their devices directly from Google, but I'm not ignorant of the carrier- and manufacturer-driven reality we live in. For better or worse, Android's only "open" until the carriers get their hands on it. But Google should insist that every Android manufacturer and carrier release images of their customized firmware for every device as well as tools for easy restoration. It's the only fair way to treat the people who are hacking the platform and giving it the amazing momentum it has, and the only fair way to continue promoting the platform as "open" when in reality the carriers and manufacturers are doing everything they can to lock it down.

View the original article here

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