More musings on locked-down mobile phones

In recent days, the story about Motorola locking out its users (and developers) from their more recent Droid phones has made big news. As it seems, the exact functionality implemented by eFuses remains unclear, and the behavior of Motorola might thus not be too different from what has more or less become the industry standard.

For those of you who are not following the mobile world as close on a technical level as people like me do: In the last five years, more and more cellphone manufacturers have used cryptographic code signing to lock-down the software that you can run on the phone. Major parts of the system including the software update mechanism and the bootloader on the device contain a verification process of those cryptographic signatures to ensure that you can only software signed by the phone manufacturer.

I have seen this with the MotoMAGX phones like the ROKR2 v8, various Windows Mobile handhelds from HTC, The non-developer (non-ADP) version of the Google/Android G1 and many other phones.

This puts the user into a strange situation where he buys some hardware from the manufacturer, but yet doesn't have control over what this device does. Just imagine buying a computer, but being limited to run Windows 98 and Office 97 on it. You could not update to a later version of the operating system, and you could not install an alternative operating system such as a version of GNU/Linux. If the computer vendor decides that he will drop support for it, you will not even be able to install security updates to the operating system.

From my point of view, this is an abusive, anti-competitive behavior by the manufacturer. For no reason but his ever-growing hunger for power he makes you completely dependent on his decision. It is not in the control of the user, what operating system or even applications you can install. It is under the control of the manufacturer.

I would accept this if the phone was rented. In this case, I would only pay a small rental fee, but the phone is the property of the manufacturer and I am only using it. But the manufacturer actually sells the device. He wants to be paid the full price, but still not actually hand control over to the buyer.

Compare this with buying a CD-player that has arbitrary restrictions so it would only play CDs from one of the major music labels/distributors like EMI, but not CDs from any of the other publishers, for no technical reason whatsoever. Or buying a TV set that is locked down so you can only watch one TV channel, while you need to buy another TV for a different channel.

I actually think the antitrust authorities should investigate this behavior of the mobile phone industry. Simply compare it with the PC situation and look at the fact how often Microsoft has been judged in some kind of anti-competitive behavior in the PC world. In the mobile phone industry, the situation is worse than it ever was in the PC world, yet we do not see big antitrust cases being brought forward.

And please don't buy those pseudo-arguments that this has any relation to regulatory/FCC approval or the safety of mobile networks themselves. The entire software stack interacting with the mobile network runs on a separate processor (the baseband processor) anyway. It doesn't matter what you install on the application processor. Once again, compare it to laptops: You can insert a 3G miniPCI, expressCard or USB dongle. Inside this dongle you run the communications stack on a processor that is completely different from your main processor that runs your regular OS (be it GNU/Linux, OS X, Windows, Solaris or whatever makes you happy).