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Nexus One and Firmware Replacements

The Not-So-Hidden Feature That Helps Change the Game

As expected, there has been a lot of coverage of Google's Nexus One Android “superphone”. Some of the coverage has focused on its feature set, hardware and software, which is nice but not genre-busting. Some of the coverage has focused on the beyond-the-carrier sales model, which is fairly distinctive in the US market and highly welcome.

However, there has been very little coverage of the one feature that, to me, represents a new “front” in the mobile device “wars”: the Nexus One is a consumer device that has user-replaceable firmware.

To date, the vast majority of smartphones are appliances. Either they cannot be updated at all, or they can only be updated with official firmware, signed by the device manufacturer. At best, groups like xda-developers find ways to hack the firmware update process to allow for unsigned firmware.

However, the Nexus One not only has a fairly simple process to “unlock the bootloader” (allowing for replacement firmware), but it even has a built-in screen explaining the ramifications of this to the end user. Clearly, Google expects the Nexus One to get replacement firmware. Contrast this with Apple's argument that performing similar operations on an iPhone are illegal.

For ordinary consumers, this will matter little, at best. However, for those with particular desires in a mobile device, this is one of the very few mainstream consumer phones (vs. “developer phones” like the ADP1) that I am aware of that all but endorses junking the existing firmware and loading something else. Nokia's N900 also appears to allow replaceable firmware, and perhaps some Symbian devices built on the new open source Symbian will offer this as well.

This is huge.

For example, I would really like to have a device with firmware that has been vetted by somebody with my interests at heart, such as the EFF, to feel confident that the device does not have backdoors, keyloggers, or anything else that might infringe upon my right to be secure in my papers and effects...which in today's world better include electronic “papers”. Moreover, I would like it if anyone, without a ton of technical skill, could have a similarly vetted device.

Now, clearly, there is a lot of work to be done to make such replacement firmware a reality, from getting the Android 2.1 code into the open source repository to figuring out how best to perform such a vetting operation. But having devices that clearly will accept such firmware, without complaint, was the one block that the community would have no shot at solving on its own. Today we have the Nexus One, and with luck, tomorrow will bring other devices offering similar capabilities.

Frankly, I wasn't sure whether I was going to pick up a Nexus One, let alone use it on a regular basis. The offer of replaceable firmware, though, suggests that my trusty T-Mobile G1 may be set aside in the not-too-distant future.

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