Times are changing, and with them our expectations from software in our smartphones …
From 2010 to 2012, my HTC Evo 4G, T-Mobile G2 and Galaxy Nexus smartphones have seen a lot of third-party firmware. I tested new experimental software almost every week, and sometimes, when I was in the mood to experiment, I tested several ROMs simultaneously over the weekend. I used ClockworkMod ROM Manager to back up and switch between different customized firmwares depending on what I needed. And I was not alone.
Previously, the very fact of owning a device based on Android made me want to try something new when I wanted to. This was especially true for devices with strong support from the hacker and modding community. In 2011 and 2012, we, enthusiasts, weren't really worried about what kind of software was installed in the smartphone out of the box – it didn't matter. We knew that we would unlock the bootloader, gain root access (at least), and most likely download third-party firmware. We changed the interface, chose the applications we needed, used settings that changed the power distribution of the device, and overclocked the processor.
But there was more to it, not just the tangible benefit of uniquely tuned software and improved system responsiveness. In those days, the process of obtaining root access was more interesting than obtaining the final result in the form of an interface that was maximally customized for personal needs. Why else would I have to 'sew' the firmware just to 'demolish' it and start over after 4 days? It was fun to learn about new root exploits, discover new advances from various development teams, and find easily installable themes or app bundles. But all this had to change someday. At the end of 2012, I got my hands on a Nexus 4 based on Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. Since then, I no longer need custom firmwares.
It's not that version Android 4.2 was perfect, it's just that it was good enough and after it there was no desire to mess with third-party firmware. Hardware and software optimizations were up to par and removed the need to shut down OS components or speed up the processor for consistent performance. Google's interface was 'clean', fast and simple. At this point, I was flashing devices just for the sake of getting a full backup of the device (cloud copies were not very good at that time) and several applications that worked better with root access.
It didn't take long before the benefits of third-party software were no longer worth the effort. The usual simple methods of customizing the phone were enough for me: disabling some applications, installing a new launcher and keyboard, searching for utilities to perform tasks that previously required root access. Thus, I no longer chased him. I didn't have to be afraid that installing an OTA update would 'break' anything on the phone. There is no longer any need to consider the possibility of unlocking the bootloader of a smartphone as a potential plus when choosing a new device. Overall, it was much easier with Android – a smartphone that doesn't need to be rooted or flashed.
And it's not just that Google's software has gotten better. Motorola, Samsung, HTC and newbies like OnePlus have started making phones with really good software. There was a choice of hardware with acceptable software that did not require complex configuration. Companies like Samsung and HTC began shipping software with deep integration of theme editors to help customize the interface without having to root, and third-party launchers quenched their thirst for new icon sets.
I admit that there are still valid reasons why people 'root' their Android smartphones. Sometimes root access is needed to bypass operator binding or remove unwanted software. Some phones were 'stuck' on the old version of the software, so even though root access opened a 'hole' in protection, it was potentially possible to close many security vulnerabilities using newer versions Android.
But these are all just specialized scenarios and are not reasons for the average user Android to obtain appropriate access to the system. Now that there are great smartphones that don't need root access to achieve certain results, the debate about whether to buy something else and 'root' this device is gradually dying down. Unlocking the bootloader and gaining root access used to be the only 'cure' for cheap, slow and old machines. This outdated view of things has lost its relevance when we talk about devices that have been on sale for the past two years. Root access used to mean taking control of a device and being able to significantly improve it. Now, it is associated with headaches and annoying interruptions in work without any tangible benefits.
I do not think that I will ever 'root' my Android – smartphone, and even more so – install full-fledged custom firmware on it. As their phones from 2014 become obsolete, I see no reason for most of the hard-core modders to continue to contact third-party software.
By Andrew Martonik
For the most part, I agree with the author, even though my hobby for custom ROMs faded away quite recently, after buying OnePlus 5. Past devices were shipped several times, especially HTC HD2, but Jobs himself was there ordered to try all kinds of firmware. My current smartphone makes it possible to continue to 'play' with the firmware, but there is nothing in it that could induce me to install some third-party assembly. As I already wrote, my inner geek is calm and satisfied with all aspects of the apparatus.
It is a great merit of the community of modders and authors of third-party firmware, I consider the fact that device manufacturers and software developers in particular could see how the community of geeks and enthusiasts reacted to this or that innovation and subsequently modify the knowledge gained in the firmware of their devices for the mass market. The passion of the enthusiasts helped us in part to understand what we want from the software, what functionality we need, and what is redundant. In this aspect – great respect to those who are somehow involved in the creation of third-party ROMs.
What do you say, lovers of firmware? Is it time to calm down?