Should Sony uphold the manufacturer warranty after a user unlocks the bootloader?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| August 3, 2012

One week ago, I came across a story on XperiaBlog claiming that Sony is denying warranty repairs to handsets with common hardware issues, such as a known yellow-tint display problem. While users across multiple continents have affirmed Sony's refusal, the claims have come primarily from users in the UK and Netherlands.

So what's the issue, exactly? Why is Sony refusing to repair handsets with faulty hardware?

One very, very simple reason: all of the refused devices either have unlocked bootloaders or have had an unlocked bootloader at some point. "Some customers who have sent in their handset to Sony have had them returned without repair due to the 'illegal unlock' of their mobile," says XperiaBlog. Re-locking the bootloader doesn't seem to have any effect on Sony's dismissal of device repairs.

Quite frankly, I didn't understand why this was an issue to begin with and I still don't today. The fact that it's even up for debate doesn't even make sense.

It's common knowledge that altering any software on a smartphone makes said phone subject to its warranty being voided, meaning even if a later non-related hardware problem occurs, you are not covered. Still, it appears as if a great deal of Sony users and sympathizers across the Web alike have scrutinized Sony for sticking by their own disclaimer and also doing exactly what most handset manufacturers do anyway. As noted by XperiaBlog, the disclaimer that is displayed when a user attempts to unlock their device's bootloader by the Sony-provided unlocking tool reads:

"Please note that you may void the warranty of your phone and/or any warranty from your operator if you unlock the boot loader."

XperiaBlog does point out that the term "may" in the above disclaimer creates a bit of ambiguity. But it's easy to dispute that it is commonly known that unlocking a device's bootloader, gaining root access or altering the software will void warranties. It's been this way since the dawn of time – or at the very least since the beginning of hackers modding software on electronic devices. But some people still insist Sony is in the wrong here. XperiaBlog states:

"As far as we see things, an unlocked bootloader should make no difference whatsoever to any hardware faults (or manufacturer defects such as the yellow tint issue) that may be present on a Sony Xperia handset. Also, this shouldn’t be seen as an ‘illegal’ unlock as most people do it through the official Sony website."

Curious to know more about why Sony was refusing to repair devices with unlocked bootloaders, PhoneArena reached out to Sony's PR team and received this response:

"For most issues/problems, unlocking the bootloader voids the warranty. Sony Mobile only honors the warranty if it is a known issue in that model/batch of phones or if it is an issue that clearly could not have been caused by flashing a different ROM. Because a new ROM can have a wide range of consequences (e.g., it can overheat the battery or change the voltage, which can damage other components), that basically means that only a small subset of issues are still covered by the warranty. Therefore, even when the phone is in warranty, the service center usually has to do a very costly board swap in order to get the phone back to its original state before it can perform any repair. The end-user has to pay for that part of the repair.

We are proud of providing the unlock feature to the developer community. Previously, there was a large risk of bricking the phone when unlocking with third party software. Sony Mobile’s solution remove’s that risk. When we initially provided the unlock feature, it was presumed that only highly skilled developers and super-users would take advantage of it. From blogs and discussion boards, it was clear that the community understood the risks and that unlocking largely voided the warranty. It appears that less sophisticated users (despite all our warnings) might be using the feature, and are now surprised by the consequences."

While I can't say I agree with Sony's wording (especially the use of "less sophisticated users"), they affirm what we should already know and what most people in the Android development community have come to grips with over the past few years. If you tinker with the software on your phone, if you tweak anything beyond a manufacturers' specifications, you're on your own. Plain and simple. That is exactly why most forum, blog and how-to posts are lathered in bold, red text warning users of the potential risks and informing them that they (the developers) assume no liability if something goes haywire.

Granted, the issue here is that Sony is believed to be circumventing the warranty by using the bootloader as a scapegoat. While unlocking a bootloader and changing the software, such as flashing a new ROM or kernel, can potentially do damage to the hardware of the device, it's hard to tie a common color tint issue – that has occurred on devices that have not been tinkered with in any unofficial way – with the display to software alterations.

No less, the fault can't be placed on Sony for a consumer not fully understanding the risks of unlocking the bootloader. Sure, something may go fatally wrong in the process and render the device useless or, in this case, something as simple as the color tint issue may occur after the unlocking is done. But I can't think of many manufacturers who would still honor such an issue after the customer blatantly agreed to proceed with a process that voids the warranty while knowing the associated risks. Would anyone expect to have a jailbroken iPhone repaired by Apple, even if the issue was unrelated to jailbreaking?

Other companies might more liberal when it comes to checking for unlocked bootloaders. I've had a phone with a custom ROM, custom recovery and unlocked bootloader replaced under manufacturer warranty through my carrier before. But a voided warranty is a voided warranty. No matter whether one company is more lax on warranties than another, if you choose to take the risk, you should also be willing to accept the consequences without pointing fingers. Had I been turned down for the warranty exchange, I wouldn't have been upset. It was worth trying and luckily it worked out.

I understand the frustration some of these users are experiencing. But I do not have sympathy for someone who doesn't fully understand the risks before jumping into something after being warned innumerable times.

Where do you stand on the issue, folks? Is Sony in the right here? Or should faulty devices be repaired (or replaced) after the customer proceeds to knowingly void the warranty?