Verizon Dulls Razr

Verizon Wireless has disabled the bootloader unlock feature in the software on the Droid Razr, the Android smartphone that Motorola unveiled last week.

Motorola had shipped the Droid Razr with a bootloader that can be unlocked and relocked, company spokesperson Becki Leonard told LinuxInsider.

“Whether that feature is enabled is dependent on carrier and operator partner restrictions, as well as our commitment to meet security, safety and regulatory requirements worldwide,” Leonard continued.

Unlocking the bootloader of a mobile phone lets users load their own firmware onto the device, but doing so wipes the device’s memory of any preinstalled apps and other information and usually renders its warranty invalid.

“This is typically not a feature that’s given to a consumer because it will result in broken devices and pissed-off users,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told LinuxInsider.

Verizon Wireless did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

What’s a Bootloader, Anyhow?

To be turned on, most personal computers do something called “bootstrapping,” meaning they kick off a boot sequence when the computer is powered on. A bootloader is code that must be executed before any operating system can be run.

The bootloader loads the main OS for the computer. It performs the same function in smartphones and other mobile devices.

A bootloader basically packages the instructions to boot the OS kernel. Most bootloaders also have their own debugging or modification environment.

Bootloaders are processor-specific.

The Whys and Wherefores of Bootloader Locking

Device manufacturers usually lock their bootloaders because they want buyers to stick to the OS that came preloaded onto their devices. Locked bootloaders make it almost impossible to flash a custom ROM onto the device.

Once the bootloader is unlocked, however, developers can install custom firmware on their devices. For that reason, technically sophisticated Android device owners, including developers, often prefer unlocked bootloaders.

“Developers and those that like to muck with software in depth, such as Linux folks, want unlocked bootloaders,” Enderle said.

Motorola and Bootloaders: The Back Story

Previous Android smartphone models from Motorola had locked bootloaders.

Earlier this year, Motorola released eFuse, a feature that reportedly bricked Droid 3 smartphones when their owners tried to unlock their bootloaders. Rumors that eFuse would brick Motorola’s Android smartphones when owners tried to unlock their bootloaders circulated on the Internet.

Motorola responded by stating that eFuse was released to ensure that devices only run on updated and tested versions of software.

Devices that try to boot with unapproved software would go into recovery mode and would be able to boot once approved software was reinstalled, Motorola said.

Nevertheless, this led to a petition signed by more than 11,000 people. Motorola later stated it would begin shipping mobile device software with bootloaders that could be unlocked and relocked.

Matching the Competition

Motorola has fallen behind the competition in offering unlockable bootloaders, and Verizon’s move to clamp down on the unlock feature may hurt the mobile device maker in the long run.

HTC offers instructions on unlocking its bootloaders on a Web page on its developers’ site. Sony Ericsson has put up a similar Web page for its smartphones.

Both companies caution that not all their devices can work with unlocked bootloaders.

They both also warn that device owners unlock their bootloaders at their own risk, that doing so may void the device’s warranty, and that the devices may not offer full functionality after being unlocked. In some cases, the devices might be permanently damaged or could overheat.

“This capability could be handy for a developer but should be restricted to that audience,” Enderle said.

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