One of the more outstanding qualities of Android, that has at least gained some recognition amongst software developers and hackers (the good kind) is its flexibility. Implying you have no issues with getting your hands dirty and voiding a warranty, if you purchase a phone and love the hardware but simply can't force yourself to come to grips with the software, there is usually still hope for salvaging your love for the device. Through custom ROMs, you can quite literally run your own modified version of Android on any Android-compatible device.
This can become particularly useful when you are mid-contract and have a phone that used to work fine before a buggy software update. If you don't have the money to buy a new phone at retail value, your options are limited. But with flashing a new ROM and even custom recoveries (and backups, which are not possible without root access), it's possible to restore the software back to what you had prior to the update – maybe something even better. The sky is the limit on this stuff ... sort of.
Once upon a time, though, there was little worry about whether a device would receive developer support. Most phones still do to some extent. But things have certainly changed.
Instead of a couple new phones launching every year, we now see upwards of 100 new Android devices worldwide each year. This means that those developers that would have been spread out among 20 or so devices are now spread out over five times the number of devices. It also means that lower-end devices and older devices become forgotten a lot quicker. The best developers flock to the more popular and high-end devices, leaving the majority of new devices with little to no (or lackluster) development support.
That said, there is now a larger issue at hand: locked bootloaders. Before Android became what it is today, everyone was still on the fence about the future of Android. No one – especially OEMs – had any clue how long Android would stick around or how powerful of a force it would be in the mobile market. Manufacturers left devices full of exploits and wide open to developers.
Now there are more than 300 million Android devices activated around the world, with 850,000 additions each day. Those OEMs (carriers, too) are now focused on customer satisfaction (through the ability to provide customer support) and strive to differentiate themselves – not only through hardware, but also through custom Android interfaces. And, for some inexplicable reason, they feel the need to lock down devices like Fort Knox, which creates quite a few hurdles for developers and greatly affects the turnaround time for development support for specific devices.
It's a mess that never should have existed.
Anyway, the point is, no longer can you simply buy just any Android phone on the assumption that it will receive support from ROM makers and other software developers. If a phone comes to market with a locked bootloader, it may never receive a full-fledged custom ROM and users may only have access to simply modified versions of the stock ROM. (I'm suddenly having sharp flashbacks to the ThunderBolt and DROID X.)
The One series by HTC, for instance, will likely receive a lot of development support despite having locked bootloaders, simply because the One S and One X are two of the nicest Android devices we've seen to date and, eventually, HTC will provide a bootloader unlock for them (we assume). In fact, the One X and One S have already been rooted by Paul O'Brien and users are simply waiting on a bootloader unlock to set the devices totally free. But other devices, like some of Verizon and Moto's latest DROID handsets, may never get a bootloader unlock treatment, which will certainly hinder dev support for the entire life of those phones.
Typically, I wait it out for devices to receive at least a little development support before jumping in head first. I have jumped the gun several times, assuming development would eventually take off, only to realize it was probably a lost cause. Like I mentioned above, both the ThunderBolt and DROID X were just two of many instances.
I would say that I'm taking a bit of a risk on the Galaxy Note that I said I would be buying earlier today. But it has been around for a while now, and it has managed to garner a decent amount of support. Plus, Samsung never totally locks their devices down.
I would like to believe I've learned my lesson. This is why I chose a Galaxy Nexus instead of a Galaxy S II or some other Android device. I was hoping that it would keep me satisfied until the next Nexus was on the horizon. Alas, it did not. Inevitably, there will be a new device to come along at some point that I simply cannot wait to have.
However, I'm interested in what you lads and lassies do when it comes to new devices. Do you wait for development support to ... develop before buying a new phone? Or do you buy it on the hopes and assumptions that some awesome developer will start pumping out ROMs and the carrier or manufacturer will unlock the bootloader? Do you even care about development support?