What is an Unlocked Bootloader? Do You Need One on Your Phone?

Over the holiday weekend I was in Washington, DC at a T-Mobile store. The news had just broken the previous night that HTC’s CEO Peter Chou had said that the company was no longer going to “lock” bootloaders.  While in this T-Mobile store, I heard a very educated salesperson telling a woman that she may want to wait on purchasing an Android device because HTC was unlocking bootloaders.

Overhearing this discussion, I was met with mixed emotions. First, it was refreshing to hear a retail-level salesperson speak with so much knowledge about Android.  Oftentimes, while the carriers mean to have the most educated people in their stores, it just doesn’t happen that way. Or you end up with experts in one OS or phone model who are not so well versed in another.  On the other hand, the salesperson blew a sale to a woman over the issue of locked bootloaders.

As a reader of LAPTOP Magazine, you’re probably a bit tech savvy, or you read LAPTOP because it’s the go-to magazine about technology for people on the go.  So don’t fret if you’re wondernig what a locked bootloader is.  Perhaps the woman knew what a locked bootloader is; in any case she just nodded and left the store—perhaps to purchase her phone elsewhere.

But if you have been feeling left out, here’s a simple explanation of bootloaders and why they matter (or don’t).

What is a Bootloader?

A locked or unlocked bootloader is what gives you access to “root.” “Root” is another big word in the Android community.  If you “root” a device, it means you have “super user” access or “administrator” access to the operating system that runs on your phone.

For the purpose of educating you in this article, think about Windows for a second.  When you either install a new version of Windows or set up your computer for the first time, you set up the first user or the administrator.  That user has access to all the bells and whistles that lay behind Windows—hidden files, control panels, you name it. A phone with “root” access allows you access to all the features hidden under the pretty user interface on your phone.

Now think for a second about whether you’ve really ever needed such access as a day-to-day user of your computer or your phone.  Although I’ve been “Thedroidguy” on Twitter and on my website for a little more than three years, I’ve only actually needed root access one time across the possibly 40-plus phones I’ve owned.  The only time I’ve ever needed root access was on a trip to Berlin for an IFA conference when I needed to change the SIM in my Samsung Captivate on AT&T so that I could use a Vodafone SIM overseas.

Root access of your Android device gives you the ability to flash ROMs. One of the most popular ROMs was created by a team called the CyanogenMod, and their current rom is CM7, which is built on Android 2.3 Gingerbread.  What this means is that if you have a phone that has an unlocked bootloader and root access,  you can flash the CM7 ROM to your phone with a couple more steps.  This also means that you can get access to most of the features in the latest version of Android that is commercially available, without having to wait for your manufacturer or carrier to give you an official update.

Root Access Is Dangerous

While it’s nice to run the latest version of anything and get upgrades and more, root access is actually dangerous.  Going back to the Windows example, Windows is pretty fail-safe; if you screw it up too badly you can restore your computer and reformat your hard drive in addition to re-installing Windows.

With an Android phone, in most cases, it’s not that easy. If you screw something up, you can end up in a bootloop where your phone doesn’t do anything but cycle through a startup screen. Worse, you can end up with a bricked phone, one that  won’t turn on no matter what.  In both of these cases, though, it’s very important to note that “rooting” your phone voids the warranty.

All in all, rooting, modding, and access to unlocked boot-oaders is stuff for someone with technical expertise almost on a par with a hacker. Sure, if you have a second phone and want to fool around a bit, it could be fun and does offer extra features, but with the wide variety of Android devices out there, there is probably a stock feature set that you enjoy.

So what’s all this hubbub about in regards to HTC and locked bootloaders? Those who are into modifying and “hacking” their phones like it when a manufacturer makes it easy to get into the bootloader to get that root access.  It was widely rumored that HTC was going to lock the bootloaders on future phones.  This wouldn’t mean no more access to root; it would just be much harder to hack the handsets.

The debate in the Android community goes back and forth on the words “open source.” Android is open-source, meaning that aside from Android 3.0/3.1, you can get a Software Developer Kit and get the entire Android code set to build your own apps, themes, software, mods, etc.  The Android team even solicits patches from their users to improve upon a subsequent build of the operating system software.

Prior to the original release of Android in 2008 and the announcement about Android in 2007, a consortium of carriers, manufacturers, and other ecosystem partners—including Google—formed the Open Handset Alliance to promote this open-source sharing model.  Several Android enthusiasts and developers feel that, with locked bootloaders, the manufacturers are actually going against both open source and the Open Handset Alliance.

HTC recently succumbed to the pressure of the Android developer community, which for developers is a good thing. Having unlocked bootloaders makes it easier for them to develop and create, and no one wants to stifle creativity.  On the other hand, neither Chou nor anyone else at HTC mentioned the degree to which their bootloaders would be unlocked and when this unlocking would occur.

Now, as it was revealed at Google I/O and repeated again and again—most recently at D9—Android is activating 400,000 devices per day. Does this bootloader thing really matter to you?

Thedroidguy is a regular guest contributor to Laptopmag. He boasts the largest independent Android following on Twitter, and he is one of the top three Android influencers in the world on Twitter. You can follow him @thedroidguy or visit him at www.thedroidguy.com. Views expressed by Thedroidguy are his own.

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  1. Tim H Says:

    Good article, and a good question. For me, the subject does not matter much at the present. However I do not change my phone very often. I can see the situation arise where I want to keep my current phone but want to update the OS and the carrier/manufacturer is not doing it timely or at all. This would make it easier to accomplish that, if I understood you correctly.

  2. CyberShells Says:

    I felt weird that writer says WINDOWS is ‘fail-safe’,EVERY SINGLE OS can easily be reinstalled on computers
    Its about the nice architecture of the computers itself,its easy to set bios in a way so that it starts up on USB/CD/DVDs etc.,so you can format your computer’s HDD and start from scratch…
    on android phones(and probably all those ‘open’ phones which allow flashing),its not that easy,while phones have a download mode and a recovery mode,while unlikely you MIGHT still break them in a way which those things no longer help,but those features still come in handy,you can flash your device easily and fix it yourself =)
    Rendering your phone completely useless is as said,unlikely

  3. Scott Says:

    I think unlocked bootloader shouldn’t even be a question. It should be like that on every Android phone. It’s my hardware I’ve purchased and I should be able to do what ever I wish that said hardware. We know we’re voiding our warranty by rooting. And as far as the general public goes, no, it doesn’t matter to them, but to some people it does, so why not just please all and have your bootloader unlocked? Some of us also HATE the skins that these phone manufactures install on top of Android, such as MotoBlur, HTC Sense, TouchWiz… maybe if the manufactures could give us the option of turning that off or buying an unlocked “stock” Android phone, I think that would make a good compromise, as that would allow for them to update the OS quicker. I prefer stock Android, but finding a top end phone that is stock, isn’t always easy. In cases like that, I will ONLY buy the phone if I can put a custom ROM on it. What I’m getting at is why not just make all the phones with unlocked bootloaders? Instead of 90% of the buyers being happy, now 100% of the buyers will be happy. That’s a bigger chunk of the pie for the manufacturer, which means more profit. It’s a win-win situation.

  4. J Says:

    I just unlocked my bootloader on my phone. hboot version 2.00.0002. ans it is still S-ON. How am I to root it now? if you don’t know how please send me a link on how to do it.

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