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September 28, 2009

Filed under: tech»mobile

The XDA Advantage

Last week, Google sent a cease-and-desist letter to Cyanogen Mod, one of the rebuilt ROM images available for Android phones. Cyanogen was designed to be faster and more stable than the prebuilt images, and incorporated features like SD card partitions and new process schedulers to make that happen. Several of the project's innovations have even made it back into the main Android code. But Cyanogen also distributed closed-source applications like Google Maps in the ROM, so Google has effectively shut it down until the authors can work on a solution.

It's depressing, but Google is legally in the right, and their actions may even have side-benefits for the community (like an uptick in interest for alternative applications). Be that as it may, it's also illustrative of a real advantage that's keeping me on Android for now: the juvenile, terrifying, but ultimately beneficial presence of the XDA Developers board where Cyanogen got its start.

XDA got its start as a modding board for older Windows Mobile phones. The way the ecosystem is set up, it's up to hardware manufacturers to determine whether or not older devices get an upgrade when Microsoft releases a new version of Windows Mobile. Sometimes they do, most of the time they don't, mainly because the upgrade would require a ton of testing for not a lot of profit. XDA sprung up to fill that gap--they dump the ROMs of newer devices, wedge the new software into "cooked" images, and figure out how to get them onto older phones. HTC, the primary manufacturer of Windows Mobile devices and of the original XDA, takes a benevolent view of all this.

Contrast that with, say, Nokia. I think Nokia is awesome, and their phones are fantastic. If their devices were "future-proofed" in the same way, I'd still be using a Nokia now. But the Finnish company is not nearly so tolerant of the homebrew underground--they'd rather sell you a new phone. So when they come out with a new version of S60 that does something important, like upgrading the web browser core, they don't make it available on older phones. And because Nokia keeps much stricter control of the firmware update process, the community can't do it for them. The result (ironic for a company that's proud of its green image) is that consumers who want new features have to buy all-new phones.

So while it is unfortunate that Android homebrew is suffering a legal setback, it's also a reminder of how much these developers contribute to the ecosystem--perhaps not in a front-facing, consumer-accessible sort of way, but as a push for the platform to remain open, hackable, and sustainable. Most consumers probably don't notice that kind of thing, or even know that it exists, but I think it's ultimately a win for them--if only because it keeps developers, who are huge nerds, excited about the platform. It's certainly held my attention.

Future - Present - Past