posted by gsyoungblood on Tue 20th Jul 2010 18:01 UTC
IconOn July 15th the latest Android super-phone was released by Motorola and Verizon Wireless. All hail the Droid X. The release was not without controversy though. The Droid X, while greatly raising the bar for Android phones in general, does so at the expense of the very power users and community that made the original Droid the gotta-have phone it became. Alienating this group may have far reaching consequences for Motorola.

Details about the Droid X seemed to surface almost daily as the release date neared. Verizon Wireless demonstrated they are every bit the master of hype as another popular smart phone company. As hype built, an undercurrent of negative news began to flow as details of how Motorola crippled the phone became known: HDMI output was supposedly restricted to user generated content only; an encrypted boot loader was used, just like the Motorola Milestone, still not broken after 7 months; and, eFuse, a "feature" that was initially reported to brick* the phone if the bootloader were changed, was enabled. Overall not very encouraging for power users looking to get their hands on what, on paper, promised to be one of the best Android phones released so far.

Discontent over Motorola's hobbling of the new Droid X continued to build until Lori Fraleigh responded on the MOTODEV Blog:

Securing the software on our handsets, thereby preventing a non-Motorola ROM image from being loaded,  has been our common practice for many years.  This practice is driven by a number of dierent business factors.  When we do deviate from our normal practice, such as we did with the DROID, there is a specific business reason for doing so.  We understand this can result in some confusion, and apologize for any frustration. Source
As you might imagine, this response did little to quell the negative comments flowing around the net. Things heated up even further when the eFuse "feature" was noticed. Again Motorola had to respond, this time with a formal statement:
Motorola's primary focus is the security of our end users and protection of their data, while also meeting carrier, partner and legal requirements. The DROID X and a majority of Android consumer devices on the market today have a secured bootloader.   

In reference speci?cally to eFuse, the technology is not loaded with the purpose of preventing a consumer device from functioning, but rather ensuring for the user that the device only  runs on updated and tested versions of software.   If a device attempts to boot with unapproved software, it will go into recovery mode, and can re-boot once approved software is re-installed. Checking for a valid software con?guration is a common practice within the industry to protect the user against potential malicious software threats.  Source

Motorola claims that a majority of other devices use a secured bootloader. This is technically true, but it is Motorola that has taken the additional step of disabling the phone if different software (i.e. bootloader, and quite probably ROM images) is detected. In short, Motorola enabled a self-destruct "feature" to prevent the end user from being able to update, upgrade, enhance, or otherwise tweak their phone as they desire. All supposedly in the name of "protecting" the consumer from potential malicious software threats.

This excuse clearly falls short when one realizes that it is extremely unlikely that a malicious image could be flashed to a phone without alerting the user. Claiming eFuse is there to protect the consumer in this manner is disingenuous at best, or a bald- faced lie at worst. Disabling legally purchased phones because the user attempts to update or otherwise modify the phone is just like General Motors shutting down the ignition system of a car because the owner changed their own oil. That kind of built-in sabotage is not tolerated with cars, or any other physical goods, and neither should it be tolerated from Motorola.

Motorola has had a huge impact on wireless communications through the years. Motorola made some of the most iconic wireless phones ever made: DynaTAC/8000 series, MicroTAC (first flip phone), StarTAC (very small flip), and more recently the RAZR. With the exception of the RAZR, those phones were from the hey-day of Motorola's wireless presence. Over time competition intensified and companies like Nokia, LG, and Samsung significantly eroded Motorola's market share. Unfortunately Motorola also rode the coattails of the popularity of the RAZR phones for so long they practically became a joke.

While the Motorola handset group had some interesting prototypes and designs, they didn't seem to be able to duplicate the popularity of their past phones. What they did have was their experience with Linux. Motorola was one of the earliest phone manufacturers to embrace Linux in a big way. The barriers they erected in their Linux endeavors did not meet with the broad acceptance they probably had hoped for, and in the end, at the end of October 2008, Motorola abandoned their flavor of Linux.

That is the Motorola that turned to Android, in an effort to reinvent itself yet again, and that in turn led to the first Droid phone. The original Droid was a return to what made Motorola great in the past. Comments about how the phone's "feel", the build quality, and even the phone's toughness all paid tribute to Motorola's past engineering mastery. And thanks to Motorola's decision to build what in effect was an open device, without including extra layers that would hinder power users, the Droid quickly earned its placed in the company of other significant Android handsets such as the G1 and Nexus One.

Motorola either fails to recognize or is denying the importance of power users and their influence in the general public. These power users played a significant role in promoting the Droid to its position of prominence in the Android handset hierarchy. Instead, Motorola has slapped the face of the community that rallied around them and helped bring Motorola back from the brink and into the minds of the people as a serious player.

It needs to be pointed out that Motorola, through Lori Fraleigh's blog, seems to be fully aware of their actions. Motorola admits that the openness of the Droid handset phone was atypical, and that it was done for a "business reason." The appeal of the Droid was a tool, a means to lure those that could potentially shape the opinions of a larger group of people. Now that this has been done, Motorola seems to be reverting to their old ways. So much for reinventing themselves.

For a company that admits it has "doubled down on our bets with Google," they seem to be missing entirely the significant risk they face should they alienate the thriving community around the platform that they are betting the company on. The iPhone has the Apple faithful, more or less, to sustain it. Motorola, on the other hand, is one of many handset manufacturers courting the Android community (new and existing members alike). Failing to take that into consideration has the potential to seriously damage Motorola's long term eort to win and keep the very customers that helped Motorola rebound once again. There's no lock-in with Android; alienating the community just pushes the community to other manufacturers that are considered more friendly.

Motorola has gone a step further and explicitly told power users NOT to buy Motorola phones. Again from the blog of Lori Fraleigh mentioned above, she said (presumably speaking for Motorola):

We understand there is a community of developers interested in going beyond Android application development and experimenting with Android system development and re-flashing phones. For these developers, we highly recommend obtaining either a Google ADP1 developer phone or a Nexus One, both of which are intended for these purposes.
In identifying the people that are interested in re-flashing phones as a "community of developers," she is either deliberately glossing over the real issues or she is showing her complete lack of understanding of the communities that have surfaced around various smart phones. Developers are not the only ones that re-flash phones. If that's what Motorola truly believes then they need to get someone in there quick to explain things to them.

There are plenty of technically savvy non-developers that load new images to their phones because they want a certain feature. Flashing phones has gone from developers to power users to regular people who are comfortable using phones and computers. Likewise, there are people that look at being able to load new images on their phones as a way to protect the investment they spent on the phone hardware, extending the lifespan of their phone while letting them continue to take advantage of new features and capabilities typically available only on the newest handsets or in the newest releases of their phone's operating system.

Carriers and handset manufacturers are motivated NOT to upgrade phones, even though technically possible, by their desire to sell new phones and, for carriers, extend people's contracts. For that reason it is most often left to the communities to develop the means to port new capabilities, features or operating systems to various phones, including older models. Phones that are easily updated often gain additional traction in the minds of people, not just power users but regular people, thanks to friends or friends of friends that mention how ?exible or powerful a given phone can be.

Likewise, companies that make those phones also become elevated in the minds of people.

All of this affects purchasing decisions. Someone comparing Windows Mobile phones before a purchase may face a choice between HTC or Samsung. HTC may be selected because HTC phones traditionally have proven more flexible and easier to update and/or tweak. Now with Android phones, people are faced with the same decision: buy HTC, Motorola, Samsung, or something else.

Reading comments on various news and blog sites about the Droid X it is clear that many have purchased the Droid X with the expectation that they'll be able to eventually put whatever images they choose on their phone. Motorola doesn't seem to understand or recognize how many regular people, not just power users or developers, are buying the Droid X with this expectation, and what the repercussions to Motorola will be if those expectations are never met.

The Droid X is an unquestioned success, quickly selling out on the day it was released. The buzz and respect built from the original Droid has most assuredly done its job and influenced the purchasing decisions of a lot of people. The hardware seems to be top notch. Only time will tell whether the growing backlash of power users angry at Motorola's inclusion of encrypted boot loaders and self-destruct measures picks up steam and aects Motorola in the long term, if Motorola learns their lesson and returns to making their phones like the original Droid, or if, in the end, the very power users that helped make the Droid so successful and turn around Motorola's fortunes are simply no longer important to Motorola. Until then, if the ability to tweak your phone is an important feature, as it is with many Android users, then Motorola has given all of us the best advice possible: buy someone else's phone.


* Traditionally turning a phone into a "brick" meant rendering a phone totally inoperable, usually after a failed flash attempt. Recovery was sometimes possible by various low-level operations, but not always successful. Motorola has explained that eFuse, enabled in the Droid X but not in the original Droid, would refuse to boot and instead enter what is essentially an infinite reboot loop until "authorized" code is found and able to be booted. The phone becomes unusable. It is not known whether or not the so-called authorized code could be replaced and the phone restored to operational condition or if the phone would have to be returned to the carrier or Motorola for repairs. Either way, Motorola may have just been responsible for broadening the definition of "brick."

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