Are manufacturers starting to see the value in the mod community?

Are manufacturers starting to see the value in the mod community?
Modders have existed in some form or other since the dawn of computers. At first, it may have just been a few guys in a garage with a screwdriver. Now, there are large communities of DIY builders, hackers, enthusiasts and independent developers who all come together around a certain platform, operating system or device to share tips and tricks on how to change (and often improve) the basic functionality that hardware or software can offer. On various platforms, the language used is different. For iOS and Windows Phone 7 it is called jailbreaking. On Android, it is rooting, due to the Linux base of the OS and needing to gain root access. But, for all platforms the aim is the same: to be able to modify the OS, gain access to deeper parts of the OS, or install homebrew/unauthorized apps.

Mainstream media likes to be reductive with these communities and label everyone within them as "hackers", which fairly or not holds a connotation in the public which leans more towards a cyber-criminal than anything else. One of the biggest news stories recently in the mobile space had to do with Apple trying to criminalize the act of jailbreaking (at term, which itself implies something illegal) the iPhone, during which Apple claimed various security vulnerabilities caused by jailbreakers without addressing the security flaws inherent in their system which often allowed the jailbreaking in the first place. The courts eventually concluded that although jailbreaking would indeed void a user's warranty, it was not a criminal act, because once purchased, the device was no longer property of the manufacturer, but of the user. This news was a boon to mod communities, but the damage to the collective image of that community was done. Apple hadn't won the case, but they had bolstered the general fear against modders in the process.

A change in perception

Now, in news that will never make it to the mainstream media, we are seeing companies turn the other way and begin to accept, if not embrace the mod community. Some are doing it reluctantly, like Microsoft, which takes precautions in their products to deter users from jailbreaking WP7 devices, but did send a congratulatory t-shirt to the first person to successfully crack WP7. But, unlike Apple and Microsoft, Google designed Android to be open-source (after a fashion), so anyone could easily modify, tinker with, or build for their platform. Because of this, the entire culture around Android is different, and one main difference is an extremely vocal and prominent developer community which puts pressure on manufacturers to stick to that open philosophy.

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The trouble is that while Android itself is open-source, the devices that it runs on are built by manufacturers which all want to protect their hardware, their software, and their reputations. That last one is the trickiest, because again, the terms "hacking" and "jailbreaking" imply something illegal, and therefore something that threatens the security of users. So, if a manufacturer releases a device that is easy to root, there is the idea that the general public will see that as the device being insecure, which is not the case. Allowing users to easily gain root access, or easily modify the software on a device could put that individual user at risk, but rarely has broader implications to the mobile ecosystem at large.

A more fair view is that these devices are allowing independent and amateur developers easier access to the resources in their devices. And, it's looking like a couple Android manufacturers are seeing this. Recently, due to a vocal backlash from users (read: the mod community) Motorola, Sony Ericsson, and HTC all promised to not lock bootloaders on their Android devices, which means modders will have easier root access to installing and running custom ROMs of Android on those devices. Separately, in an even bolder move Samsung gave Galaxy S II handsets to developers in the Cyanogen community to help in building mods and custom ROMs. Cyanogen is the largest unified group of developers creating custom ROMs for Android devices. The benefits of the mod community for users has been answered in each of thousands of articles about the best apps in the Cydia store, or the best apps for root users. But, the question here is: why are manufacturers changing their tune?


The most cynical answer to the question of why manufacturers are doing this is purely monetary. Not only will devices sell more if they allow easier modifications, because of the size of the developer community, but it also means that manufacturers don't have to spend money trying (and often failing) to stay one step ahead of the mod community.

A less cynical answer is that manufacturers are actually seeing the value in the mod community, both in influence and raw talent. One thing that often gets lost when tossing around terms like "hackers" and "jailbreakers" is that the mod community is really a fully functioning crowd-sourced team, complete with developers and beta testers and filled with ideas. The mod community is built on technology enthusiasts, who are the first to try, first to buy, and most importantly for manufacturers, first to recommend. Early adopters tend to be influencers and leaders for the purchasing decisions of their friends and families. So, if you create something that early adopters like, they will recommend it to others, and that word of mouth is extremely valuable.

The other side of the coin are the developers of the mod community, who are extremely talented, and come up with some truly amazing ideas, often before the big guys do. The most recent example is Peter Hajas, who was one developer behind a vastly improved notification system for iOS called MobileNotifier, which he and a friend created back in February. The app was only available in the jailbreak app store Cydia, but it was so popular and so well made, that Apple hired the coder of the team: Hajas. Essentially, the mod community is a vast talent pool, filled with people willing to do the work for little to no money. Companies don't have to worry so much about searching for talented developers, because the community will show them who is worth their time by gathering around great software.

The roadblocks

In general, a thriving and accepted mod community benefits the entire ecosystem from users up to manufacturers, but there are roadblocks to it becoming the norm for manufacturers to allow amateur developers easier access to hardware. Obviously, we can assume that despite using the mod community as a talent pool, Apple will never openly accept modders, because they need control. Apple needs to control what devices run iOS in order to ensure easier development due to standardized hardware, but also to create a sense of exclusivity. Apple needs to control access to hardware and control software in order keep the learning curve of iOS to a minimum, and to ensure their gated community stays clean. Microsoft is also trying to keep tighter controls on WP7 for similar reasons.

Android manufacturers don't have the same worries, because Google wants Android running on any and all hardware, and for better or worse, the Android Market is like the Wild West. That said, manufacturers do still want to protect their software, which often means the UI layer that they put on top of Android in order to differentiate them from competitors, like HTC Sense, Samsung TouchWiz, and MotoBlur.

But, the biggest obstacle, as always, are the mobile carriers. Usually, right at the top of the list for jailbreak apps or custom ROMs is the ability to tether your phone's Internet connection for free. Not surprisingly, carriers really don't like it when users share their mobile Internet connection with other devices without paying for the privilege. There are other features that the mod community offers to users that annoy carriers, but often tethering is the biggest issue. So, you'll notice that any time a manufacturer says they won't lock bootloaders, it is almost always followed by the qualifier "when/where carriers allow".

The number of gatekeepers in the mobile ecosystem is shrinking, but the biggest gatekeepers of all, the carriers, still exist, and will continue to hold sway as our mobile devices continue to use more and more data. But, as a small consolation, maybe manufacturers are seeing the value in the mod community, and understanding that most are not out to destroy the ecosystem, but to make it better for everyone involved.

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