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A Rootlocked Industry

I just heard this morning that the ASUS Transformer Prime will be shipped with a locked bootloader. I wanted to spit; that machine was (until a few hours ago) at the top of my tablet prospects list. Then, about twenty minutes ago, I found the update: ASUS, having felt the Gates of Hell open upon its head for the last four days, decided that it will ship a bootloader unlocker for the product–though at the cost of your warranty.

This topic will be the tech issue of 2012: Whether or not our industry has a rootlocked future.

We’ve had hints about this for some time. I originally wrote off the fact that Android could not access the Xoom’s card slot as some weird failure at Motorola. Then I found that this was only true in the US. Europeans, once they got the Xoom, found full access to the slot. Only where the Xoom was a “Google Experience Device” was the card slot out of reach. So it wasn’t Motorola at all. It was Google declaring war on sideloading, lest sideloading thin out their revenue stream from various Google cloud services.

Looking around at promising tablets, it’s a rare one now that isn’t rootlocked. I evaluated and turned down the Nook Tablet for that reason. (The original Nook Color is still what I consider an open system–though for how long no one knows.) The Xoom 2/XYBoard no longer has a card slot. (Rounded corners are not enough to make me pull the plastic out.)

Put as simply as possible, all of the major vendors want to make the handheld market basically what the TV market is today: A completely locked end-to-end pipeline that guards content from server to screen. ASUS was very clear about that: They had to lock the TP’s bootloader to get Google to allow Google video rentals to operate on the machine. Motorola hasn’t confirmed it, but I’m sure it was the same for the original Xoom. Calling it “video rental” is a misnomer. It’s really pay-per-view, which Big Content has wanted to do for many years. The PC market evolved in too open a fashion to make that possible. The tablet market, by contrast, seems to be jumping right into their pockets.

Part of this is the idiotic “give away the razor, sell the blades” business model. Tablets are often cheaper than they would otherwise be, because their vendors expect to make money on content, with content subsidizing the device cost to the end user. People now expect a tablet to cost no more than a certain amount, and so getting a truly open tablet (without a locked content stream) on the market at a competitive price is far more difficult.

Side comment: Yes, I am an anomaly. I see two or three movies a year (at the theater) and do not watch TV at all. I do read a lot of books, and I’m certainly willing to pay for them, but I do not buy as many as I might if I were more sure that they would not simply evaporate on me someday, due to a corporate bankruptcy or some kind of patent or IP rights battle that doesn’t involve me. If an ebook costs more or less the same as a hardcover, I buy the hardcover. It’s unclear how prevalent my attitude is, but I’m sure it’s prevalent enough to depress digital revenues significantly.

I’ve already mentioned that Android isn’t an OS in the same sense that Windows is. Vendors and carriers can make mods to Android that basically fork the open-source base and turn it into separate OS species that are more “Android compatible” than anything like a single OS. Android isn’t a GPL product. It uses the Apache 2.0 license, which does not compel vendors to release changes back into the community. So Android is a hybrid of open and closed technology that makes the sealed content pipeline possible. (Otherwise, the community would just edit out what it didn’t like and recompile the OS.)

2012 will be an interesting year. The top vendors like Apple, Motorola, and Samsung have enough market share to get away with this. Smaller vendors like ASUS (and down from there) do not. My hope is that we will see smaller vendors offer truly open high-quality Android tablets that do everything but offer pay-per-view content, and are capable of booting into other versions of the OS, or another OS entirely. I’d pay more for such a tablet. A year from now we may know. Stay tuned.


  1. ebenezer says:

    …so so so what problem do you have with the iPad? 😀


  2. Tom R. says:

    Good analysis Jeff, but there may be a couple of points you missed.

    Big Media doesn’t like the open platform model of the PC at all and has two things in the works to close it up. One is the SOPA bill currently before congress. It is NOT about piracy at all, it is about being able to control or suppress ANY content on ANY site. The bill is THAT bad. Also the new boot model (I forget the acronym) that Microsoft and Intel have planned for Windows 8 and beyond locks down the PC platform completely if that is what they want. And I am enough of a cynic to think they do. I think Cory Doctrow recently had something to say about that, but I have not yet read it.

    I bought a Color Nook for my wife last August and have no plans to root it, but might either buy or build a micro SD card to let it function as a tablet. I have a good friend who has done that and it does work very well. My wife made it clear when she got the Nook that she was not going to stop buying paper books! Her main criteria for whether to get an ebook or paper book is whether it is something she wants to keep after reading once. If she does she buys the paper book. This includes book series by authors she likes.

  3. Erbo says:

    The Nook Tablet’s “locked bootloader” nature is built into its hardware (as this TI whitepaper outlines). The Nook Color offers no such protection, and even if B&N chooses to introduce it into later models, it can’t hack such in by software update alone. (The NC microSD hack takes advantage of the fact that the hardware always tries to boot from an external memory card before it tries to boot from its internal flash memory. That priority is hardwired into the chipset.) What will probably happen is that B&N will just discontinue the NC eventually; it’s much less powerful, hardwarily, than the NT.

    B&N appeared to be turning a blind eye to hackers when it introduced the NC, and the NC was widely hailed as being hacker-friendly. I guess now we know their answer to that. Of course, both B&N and TI tout the locked bootloader as protecting the user from viruses and malware. However, we should all know from long experience that, whenever a big company begins a sentence with “In order to serve you better…”, what they really mean is, “Bend over and assume the position, peasant!

    Over here, the person with the most to gain from e-books would be Sabrina; she routinely buys dozens of Harlequin romance novels per month, and she owns a fine device for reading e-books (an iPad 2). Ironically, though, it would cost more to get her books as e-books from Harlequin than it does to buy the physical paperbacks at Walmart. Go figure.

  4. Carrington Dixon says:

    The first time I heard the “give away the razor, sell the blades” business model was with regard to the TI-99/4A. We all know how well that turned out. May the locked bootloader have a similar fate.

  5. Jim Tubman says:

    Perhaps we (those of us who want to be more than slack-jawed content consumers) will wind up going back to the 1970s, when people built their own computers from kits.

    1. KD says:

      Jim, I wouldn’t be so sure of that possibility. I am quite sure that the content industry could find some excuse to persuade their subsidiary that we call Congress to outlaw providing kits to build what they’d probably call infringement-enabling devices.

  6. Rich Dailey says:

    I can’t help but believe that Microsoft has been in some kind of deep re-evaluation mode, and that they are about to shake the world with something.

  7. Lee Hart says:

    It often seems that if we are being force-marched backwards to the time when the “computer” on the desk was just a data terminal. There was nothing “personal” about it; all information content came from a locked-down tightly-controlled IT monopoly.

    Though Jeff’s readers are probably the exceptions, I’d say the vast majority of computer users do not create *any* content themselves; they just read/watch/listen to content produced by someone else. Increasingly, that “someone else” isn’t an individual; it’s a large corporation.

    The way to make Big Money on something is to monopolize it. Today, it doesn’t have to be something tangible like railroads or oil; it can also be data or information. We’ve already seen this in movies and music; now they’re working to do the same for books.

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