Fight for Your Right to Root: A Smart Phone Declaration of Independence

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for people to dissolve the wireless bands which have connected them with their cell carrier and to assume among the powers of the root, the admin rights over their phones to which the laws of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and their tech skills entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to hack their phones.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all smart phones are created equal, that they are endowed by their creators with certain unlockable capabilities, that among these are Life on the network of one's choice, Liberty to install custom ROMS or apps, and the pursuit of Happiness through Flash support and Wi-Fi tethering. Whenever any vendor becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish their phone's software and to institute a rooted or jailbroken OS.

Unfortunately, the founding fathers didn't have cell phones. But, if they did, does anyone doubt that they'd have declared independence from King Steve, rather than King George? As anyone who has an iPhone knows, Apple's device will only allow you to install censor-approved apps from its app store and, even though the phone's hardware allows it to work on T-Mobile's GSM network, its software forces you to use AT&T.

So Thomas Jefferson and John Hancock must have smiled a little from the great beyond this week when they read that the Library of Congress announcement that "jailbreaking" or modifying your phone is not prohibited by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Unfortunately, the new interpretation is no shot heard round the world as users have been able to jailbreak their phones for years. And because jailbreaking software inevitably contains some copyrighted code, it's unlikely you'll see commercialized jailbreaking solutions. Rather than embrace the new rules, Apple coldly reiterated to its users that jailbreaking voids your warranty. Even worse, Apple's not alone in its paternalistic attempts to control and limit the user experience. Google Android handsets have their own childproof locks. Even though the Android OS is based on Linux and it offers administrative controls, all Android phones come with "root" (aka admin) access turned off. In order to "root your phone" and gain full control of its capabilities, you need to find a custom hack somewhere online.

Why would you want to root your Android phone? It sounds so geeky and technical, but there are benefits anyone can see. With a rooted phone, you can install a custom operating system update known as a ROM that may be based on a newer version of Android than you currently have installed. So, for example, you can get a custom ROM with Android 2.2 (aka Froyo) for your Motorola Droid, HTC Incredible, or HTC EVO 4G right now, but nobody knows when Verizon or Sprint will release their official updates for these phones. In addition to having a newer OS with new features like Flash support, a custom ROM can allow you to overclock your phone for better performance, to Wi-Fi tether your phone to your laptop, or to remove built-in apps you don't want.

Unfortunately, some Android handset makers are almost as bad as Apple when it comes to restricting the freedom of their customers. Motorola, for example, recently put a bootloader on their Droid X phone that prevents the installation of custom ROMs. When questioned, Motorola told Engadget, "Motorola's primary focus is the security of our end users and protection of their data, while also meeting carrier, partner, and legal requirements."

Oh handset makers, why can't you listen to founding father Benjamin Franklin, who wrote "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety?" We don't need you trying to protect us from ourselves.

If I decide to install unsupported software on my phone, you don't have to support me. By all means, void my warranty. But how dare you try to stop me? I paid for that phone.

And let's be honest here. Is it the user you're protecting from the evils from unofficial software or your own bottom line? Apple doesn't profit off of sideloaded apps and it doesn't get a cut of any money T-Mobile might make from providing service to an unlocked iPhone. And Android vendors do profit off of  the apps they preload, like  like the Blockbuster video player, Sprint TV, or AT&T's proprietary navigation software. Surely companies like Blockbuster wouldn't like it if you could just remove their apps the way that computer users can uninstall the free trial of Norton Internet Security that comes preloaded on almost every new notebook.

Imagine how different the world would be if computer makers locked down the PC like handset makers lock down their phones. Just picture yourself buying a laptop that comes with Windows XP preloaded and Windows 7 comes out in beta but your computer is BIOS locked so you can't install this unapproved software. When Windows 7 finally ships, you have to hope and pray that the company which manufactured your notebook allows you to install the new OS, but they have no incentive to help you as they already have your money and your upgrade provides no benefit to them. And just forget about installing Ubuntu!

If the PC were a locked platform, Linux would have never been invented and the world would be a completely different place. Handset makers are trying to stifle that kind of innovation on phones.

As phone users, we need to demand the same freedoms on our handsets that we have on our PCs. Unfortunately, the government isn't going to step in and help us out here. There's nothing in the Library of Congress's new interpretation of the law that forces the Apples or Motorolas of the world to stop trying to block you with technology. As long as the handset makers can stay one step ahead of hackers, they can always prevent jailbreaking or rooting.

We have to vote with our wallets, by selecting phones that provide maximum flexibility. While the idea of a phone that supports user-installed operating systems without the need for hacks seems like a pipe dream, history shows us that such a revolution is more than possible; it has happened before. Processor and motherboard makers used to make it difficult for PC enthusiasts to overclock their chips, because users were, in effect, getting more performance than they paid for. However, as more and more geeks started overclocking, manufacturers started to build overclock-friendly components to satisfy this demand. The same thing can happen with phones. It's up to you.

Avram Piltch
Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master's degree in English from NYU.