Carrier's response to the FCC is unappologetic

Google Inc. (GOOG) is supposedly a champion of developer rights and software freedoms.  So it seems highly curious that while the majority of Android manufacturers like Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KS:005930) and HTC Corp. (TPE:2498unlock their bootloaders, Motorola Mobility's phones (such as the popular Droid RAZR) are still locked up tighter than Fort Knox.

Unlocked bootloaders allow for custom ROMs and the removal of unwanted carrier "bloatware".  This is particularly handy for independent developers, who may wish to test apps on several different versions of Android, on one device.

I. Motorola: Locked up Tight

On the other hand, a locked bootloader can be a daunting obstacle to enthusiasts.  It takes a lot of effort to reverse engineer one.  Although unlocking the bootloader via exploits is legal, the difficulty factor means it is done for only a handful of the top selling phones such as Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) iPhone.  And even in these cases, the exploitation process creates security risks, which the company and unlockers must patch.  All of this is less ideal than in the case where the carrier provides a secure, authorized bootloader unlock.

Motorola in posts to Twitter indicated that its phones were "locked per carrier".  

Droid RAZR boot loader

But was this really the case?

II. Verizon Defends Locking

It appears so.

A reader of the site Droid Life filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission about the bootloader locking of Motorola phones on the network of Verizon Wireless, a joint venture between Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) and Vodafone Group Plc. (LON:VOD), and AT&T Inc. (T).  The user complains to the FCC that the provisions of Verizon Wireless's government "Block C" spectrum license prohibit such actions.

In response to the complaint Verizon Wireless, the largest U.S. carrier, strongly disagrees with that sentiment.  It wrote the following letter to the FCC:

Verizon Droid Unlocking

Verizon's statements echo Apple's who has long fought ardently with unlockers.

III. With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

In reality, Verizon and Apple are right to an extent -- greater freedom of unlocked hardware means more risk (the digital analogy of getting your drivers license) that third-party ROMs might allow malware or interfere with the fundamental network hardware, such as data transfer utilities or the phone's antenna-dependent signal strength algorithms.

However, it's also an excuse for control.  Some of this control -- such as fighting pirated apps -- is at least mildly pro-developer.  Other aspects of control, such as user monitoring and punishing unauthorized tethers, are more questionable, given that it can detract from a user's experience and or endanger them.

The issue of user monitoring was especially noteworthy, given that it was recently found that HTC's smartphone were printing sensitive information via a monitoring app.  And aside from the HTC-specific security risk, the revelation raised privacy concerns about how much data was being collected, and who it might be shared with.  The scandal appeared to be part of what pushed HTC to unlock its bootloader.

Verizon Wireless claimed via Twitter that it did not use Carrier IQ.  But domain lookups looks show that Verizon Wireless owns IPs associated with Carrier IQ domain names, according to sources.  Some have speculated that Verizon may have simply rebranded the app, disguising its name (which would make its above denial technically correct in literal terms).

And that's not to mention that unlocking allows Verizon to lock consumers to its network by disallowing their handsets to work on other networks -- an anti-competitive technique.

And ultimately the biggest point is that locking makes a developer unable to test their product broadly on one handset, locking out small developers from the process -- or more likely convincing them to pick a less restrictive carrier/OEM.

The decision definitely makes Verizon Wireless the carrier not to choose for those considering Android development.

Verizon expensive
Verizon is the most expensive carrier and one of the least friendly U.S. carriers when it comes to developer boot unlocking. [Image Source: Flickr/Exif]

For average customers, it's one more factor to weigh.  Verizon has industry leading customer service ratings and the nation's largest LTE (4G) network, but also charges more than any other carrier for its data plans.

Source: Droid Life

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