Verizon's stance on bootloaders is typical and naive

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| Published: March 1, 2012

The topic of locked bootloaders is a touchy one. The bootloader is the key to many modifications that are made to Android devices, and when it's locked it can be the cause of many a headache. Anyone who has tried to hack or mod their Android phone with a locked bootloader knows this pain and the severity of the headaches.

The worst case that I can remember was the DROID X. I won't bore you with all of the details, but the shorthand version is that Motorola didn't want people modding their devices and removing what was then known as MOTOBLUR. So they locked the bootloaders and included software that would set the phone into a boot loop if you tampered with the bootloader or the stock recovery (which is what you replace when you want to flash custom ROMs).

As you would expect, it was a major roadblock for those in the development community and stood in the way of the slew of hacks and mods we all have become accustomed to on other devices. (I had come from a Nexus One to a DROID X, so it was a radical flip for me.) And this goes for just about any device with a locked bootloader. There are sometimes workarounds that clever developers conjure up. But they're no comparison to modding a device without a locked bootloader.

As many of you probably know, though, several manufacturers have heard our cries. Reluctantly, OEMs have been offering bootloader unlock options for select devices. Others have simply stopped locking bootloaders or launching different versions of the same phone – some locked, some not.

But it's good to remember that our favorite wireless providers also (questionably) have a say on the matter. However, we've heard little of their stance on the issue ... until now.

A letter from a Verizon executive analyst to the FCC in response to a Droid Life reader's official complaint was outed yesterday evening by none other than Droid Life. In short, the complaint from the reader stated that Verizon is not allowed to lock the bootloaders of phones. The following is a segment of the executive analyst's reply:

"Please be advised that 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 to the network.  The addition of unapproved software could also negatively impact the wireless experience for other customers. It is always a delicate balance for any company to manage the technology choices we make for our branded devices and the requests of a few who may want a different device experience.  We always review our technology choices to ensure that we provide the best solution for as many customers as possible."

For starters, I should note that the formal complaint referenced "Block C license", which refers to legal bounds placed by Verizon's purchase of the 700MHz LTE band. Someone pointed out that the license "includes a reference to not being allowed to 'lock' a phone," says Droid Life's Kellex. The customer's complaint refers to locking bootloaders while the "Block C license" refers to restricting network access to their own. In other words, these two things are talking about entirely different types of locking.

Still, Verizon's response is exactly what we would expect of the nation's largest carrier. It uses a bunch of PR jargon and largely misses the point. The part that I'm really interested in is the bold sentence above.

In essence, Verizon is saying that with an unlocked bootloader, a customer can modify and completely replace the approved software; thus, they can't provide support for software that they are unfamiliar with. Fine. I get that. It makes perfect sense. But their answer is just completely disallow any unapproved software? It would be just as easy to provide customers with an equally absurd PR statement that says something along the lines of:

"If a customer chooses to alter the software on their device, Verizon Wireless cannot accurately provide the level of support
our customers have come to expect. By choosing to modify the device, the manufacturer warranty is void and Verizon Wireless cannot offer support."

This way everyone is happy. Well, more people are happy. By locking bootloaders and attempting to prohibit hacking and modding entirely, tinkerers' and developers' options are limited.

The development community is still the minority. That's no secret. But it's growing, and Android's flexibility ability to be completely altered to the user's consent is the reason many people choose Android. Verizon is effectively stifling that on their network, cutting developers off and forcing them to look elsewhere for devices (or pick and choose between phones with unlocked bootloaders, like the Galaxy Nexus).

As Kellex notes, the letter interestingly doesn't even mention security, which is normally the main point in arguments against open bootloaders. And, instead, the argument that the "wireless experience for other customers" could be "negatively affected" is made. How? Verizon issues throttling for unlimited users and data caps with expensive overage fees to keep users in check. These are back-end policies that aren't affected by altering the software on the phone, and it keeps users under Verizon's thumb, unable to use any significant amount of data without some consequence.

I hate to sound so cynical, but none of this should even be a problem. Locked bootloaders shouldn't exist and I shouldn't even have to make this argument. It's an issue that is being blown out of proportion by device OEMs and wireless providers, and it's completely against the principle upon which Android was built. We put our hard-earned cash on the table for a piece of hardware that comes pre-loaded with tested software. If we, the people who paid for the device, want to risk bricking the device and run our own software, why should the wireless provider or manufacturer even care? Anyone who plans to root, unlock their bootloader or customize their device at all should know the risks beforehand and should be well aware that their manufacturer warranty will be voided in the process. That's not to say everyone will be aware of the risks or will read all of the warnings before flashing a ROM. But either way, in the event something goes wrong, it's on them.

Why manufacturers and providers have a hand (or worry) in this at all will never make sense to me.