Unlocked Bootloaders, Increased Smartphone Openness & Zittrainian Generativity

by on May 27, 2011 · 136 comments

In my work critiquing the Lessig-Zittrain-Wu school of thinking–which fears the decline and fall of online “openness” and digital  “generativity”–I have argued that, while there is no such thing as perfect “openness,” things are actually getting more open and generative all the time. All that really counts from my perspective is that we are witnessing healthy innovation across the generativity continuum.

Will some devices and platforms continue to be “closed”? Sure. Think Apple and cable set-top boxes. But (a) there’s a ton of innovation taking place on top of those supposedly “closed” platforms and (b) there are other options consumers can exercise if they don’t like those content /information delivery methods. [See this chapter from the Next Digital Decade book for my fuller critique.]

And, even if one adopts a rigid Zittrainian view of openness and generativity, each day seems to bring more good news. From that perspective it’s hard to find a better headline than this one: “Smartphone Makers Bow to Demands for More Openness.” That’s from ArsTechnica today and it refers to the fact that smartphone giant HTC just announced it would no longer attempt to lock the bootloader on its smartphones, meaning geeks like me can root and hack their devices to their heart’s content. As the Ars story notes:

HTC has long been seen as a relatively modder-friendly phone manufacturer. Although many of their phones have had locked bootloaders, workarounds were easy enough for software developers to spot in order to gain superuser access to their phones. That changed recently, however, when modders discovered that two new Android phones—the HTC Sensation and Evo 3D—would come with software that prohibited bypassing locked bootloaders.

“The system was locked but exploitable before,” Android enthusiast Irwin Proud told Wired.com in an interview. “Suddenly they required signature checks,” or digital verification of software that allows it to load. An Android activist, Proud has organized online campaigns to fight against locked-down phone releases. After hearing this, the modding community wasn’t happy. Users launched WakeUpHTC.com, a website which gave upset modders all of HTC’s contact info, encouraging them to bombard the company with requests for a change in its bootloader policy. On Thursday, the company relented.

Here’s specifically what HTC’s CEO Peter Chou had to say in a Facebook post:

“There has been overwhelmingly customer feedback that people want access to open bootloaders on HTC phones. I want you to know that we’ve listened. Today, I’m confirming we will no longer be locking the bootloaders on our devices. Thanks for your passion, support and patience.”

Now that’s what I call a Zittrainian success story! Markets and public pressure prevailed and led to more openness and generativity in the purest sense of the terms.

I suppose that some will still worry and retort that “well, the carriers might still try to lock down the devices.” That story might have been more believable five years ago but the new reality of the smartphone world today is that the OS and app makers now hold most of the cards. Carriers are practically giving away the store (literally!) as they rush to get the latest and greatest phones and operating systems from the likes of Apple, Google, Microsoft, HTC, Motorola, LG, and so on.  This is amazingly dynamic ecosystem with multiple layers of innovation and competition.

I don’t think there’s any way the generativity genie could be put back in the bottle at this point. Too many people want tinker-friendly devices and more “open” platforms.  Of course, it’s also true that some devices will remain somewhat more locked-down to ensure “stability” or simplicity for those users who desire it. But what’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t they have that choice? Again, it’s the innovation across the full range of devices and platforms that is so important and impressive in this case. That’s all we should really care about. Finally, if goes without saying that even the most heavily fortified security can be broken when determined people try hard enough.

I hope Zittrain, Wu, and Lessig appreciate this and that they and others acknowledge these beneficial developments so that we can avoid foolish calls to regulate this healthy information ecosystem. These guys should declare victory and pop the champagne. The vision they favor is prevailing.

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