(This article represents the thoughts of its author and does necessarily reflect the opinions of Rocksauce Studios.)
The modern smartphone is a wonderful thing. It’s a convenience when you need a phone, camera, and computer but don’t really feel like lugging 20 pounds of gear around with you. They can connect us with a video feed to someone on the other side of the globe in real-time or let us quickly message someone in another room of our office if we are too busy to move from our desk. But these efficiencies come at a price to the consumer who still must deal with not being able to load what they want onto a device, along with archaic, absurdly expensive and inconvenient data plans.
The Bootloader Problem:
Typically I don’t enjoy talking about the underpinnings of operating systems – it’s both an extremely dry topic and somewhat difficult to understand if you don’t typically have your head in the mobile “hacking” world – but in this case it’s necessary (mostly to get this off my chest so I can keep my own sanity). In a nutshell, mobile (and typically all) operating systems employ a collection of instructions known as a “bootloader.” If you aren’t familiar with a bootloader, it’s one collection of code that runs right before the full operating system starts up to verify that the software on your phone is running correctly – a integral piece of turning on your smartphone.
Sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want their smartphone to boot up exactly as expected? Well, as it turns out, a lot of people – myself included.
The issue here is that the same bootloader that checks to make sure your device launches its software correctly is also the code that needs to be modified to load custom software onto a device. However, some hardware manufacturers and mobile service providers don’t want you to be able to load custom software onto your device, so they encrypt the bootloader code so that it cannot be modified to launch such custom software, and try to tell you that it’s for your own good. I take issue with this idea of protecting me from myself since it’s completely absurd, and somewhat of an disingenuous argument.
I am a strong believer that what I buy should be my own. If I want to break whatever device I own through software modification, I should be able to do so, just as I could break it by throwing it or using it as an impromptu hammer. But some mobile service providers disagree with the consumers on this practice, continually putting out statements about how they are only making it hard to modify our software because it would give us a poor experience, and they really have the consumer’s best interest in mind. In other words, everything running on their networks with a locked and encrypted bootloader is all rainbows and kitten whiskers – you can never, ever have a bad experience with one of those devices. (If you listen really hard I bet you can hear my eyes rolling as I write that sentence…)
The truth is, mobile service providers don’t care if you have a good experience or not outside from keeping you as a customer. What they do care about, however, is keeping you forking over your cold hard cash to fill their coffers, and having an unencrypted bootloader can cut into those profits.
By keeping the bootloader off limits, mobile service providers and manufacturers can do things like force you to pay for a data-tethering plan, make you keep installations of worthless apps (mostly for-pay services the service providers offer for the most part) on your phone that can never be removed, and even try to “encourage” you into upgrading a phone before its hardware is even close to outdated since you are not able to update.
The Data Problem:
Imagine if your water utility charged you a certain amount of money to get a limited amount water to your bathroom sink, but to run that same water in the shower would be an additional purchase each month. That probably wouldn’t go over too well in your household, and yet this is exactly how wireless data is treated on smartphones today.
Data is data whether it be for a laptop, smartphone, HTPC or other device. For the most part, loading a page on a mobile phone will take the same amount of data that loading the same page on a laptop computer would. The computer doesn’t use more data to load the same page just because it’s a laptop – yet this is what some mobile service providers would have you believe in order to sell you a tethering plan.
You have already paid for your 2 GB (or other amount) of data, and I for one don’t think I should have to pay an additional charge to use the same data I already paid for on a different device. Add to this the ridiculous prices of data overage fees per GB, and you have a serious and fundamental flaw with our mobile providers and systems, and one that nobody – not even the FCC is really willing to address in a serious way.
As a matter of fact, just recently one of the larger mobile providers in the US was forced to stop blocking consumers from downloading tethering apps in the markets, a big win for wireless consumers.
In the last few weeks, mobile data plan issues saw some light of day, as a few of the nation’s mobile service providers stepped up to create new plans where multiple consumers could tap the same pool of data with any of their devices. This is a great start, but unfortunately these efforts are flawed since you can’t get one of these types of data plans without getting a large portion of voice minutes along with it. This only increases the price for those of us that simply want a good device-neutral data plan with a reasonable cost, or those of us that only need a handful of minutes with our data.
As for bootloaders, most manufacturers have set up an unnerving system of voiding your device’s warranty to use their web based tools to unlock. So if you like running custom software, and two weeks after you unlock your device’s bootloader your power button starts acting up for no reason related to the software modifications, you are out of luck. Not exactly the best solution for consumers, but by and large much better than dealing with hacking open an encrypted bootloader phone on your own.
All in all, I just want what I paid for – no more, no less. If I pay for data, I expect to be able to use that data where and how I see fit, not to be constricted with arbitrary rules about the type of device, the build of the software, or the color of underwear I might have on for that matter. My device is my device, and my data is my data.