There’s less and less separating mobile handsets from one another when it comes to the hardware that powers them. So, what happens when users can decide for themselves what operating system software they want to run on their phones?
Just looking at the latest smartphone offerings from Motorola, Samsung, HTC and other device manufacturers, high-end phone hardware is looking increasingly similar: dual-core processors, 1GB of RAM and screens with at least 900 pixels on the long side are now standard smartphone qualities, regardless of brand.
Despite minor differences in screen resolution, dozens of phones from different manufacturers all run Android pretty much out the box. What separates them is a user interface overlay of some sort — Samsung’s TouchWiz, HTC’s Sense or Motorola’s Motoblur.
And that’s really the point: as devices look more and more like one another, there’s less emphasis on hardware differentiators and more on the little tweaks and user interface alterations made by manufacturers.
And then there’s the iPhone. Unlike Android, Apple’s iOS software doesn’t even pretend to be “open”. But that hasn’t stopped people from finding ways around this. The iPhone can be “jailbroken” and then the possible alterations are only limited by the user’s imagination and abilities.
Apple tried to argue that “jailbreaking” a device violated end user agreements. But US courts disagreed, saying that once you as a consumer have bought a device, it’s yours to do with as you wish.
So what if you love iOS but can’t afford an iPhone, or you can but you’d love the LED-flash and higher resolution camera a competitor’s device has to offer? Just as some people run Windows on Apple Macs, and vice versa, it’s surely only a matter of time before you choose your device, and then your operating system, rather than the other way around.
Of course, manufacturers hate the idea. They spend fortunes on user interface design and operating system development, in part so that they can try and be the first to offer something a competitor doesn’t. Where devices are becoming more homogeneous, software is a great place to differentiate.
But the disapproval of manufacturers isn’t going to stop resourceful consumers from figuring out how to make their devices operate exactly as they’d like them to, even if that means replacing the software that powers them.
Android users are already well known for overhauling the software shipped with their devices through a process called “rooting” — not to be confused with the Australian use of the same term which means something decidedly less technical. By rooting an Android device, users can make big or minor alterations, from choosing to store applications on an SD card rather than the device’s internal memory to installing a heavily customised operating system.
Steven Ambrose, MD of SA consulting firm Strategy Worx and a serial device dabbler, says that as hardware gets more and more generic, it’s possible consumers will start installing different operating systems on their phones, much like they’d choose to install Linux on a PC instead of Windows.
“A perfect example is the HTC HD7,” Ambrose tells me. “That phone has been released running Windows Mobile 6.5, Windows Mobile 7 and Android. The devices have had slightly different names, but all run the same hardware.”
He says with the forthcoming iOS 5 from Apple no longer requiring a desktop or laptop to set up, this may be the final step required to move the ideas of the Hackintosh to the world of mobile devices. The Hackintosh community creates hacks that allow users to install Apple’s Mac OS X on non-Apple hardware.
Though the majority of consumers are quite happy to use their devices as the manufacturers intended, there are a growing number of power users who want to eke the most out of the hardware and make it conform to their expectations rather than the other way around.
iOS users might ask why anyone would want Android on an iPhone, and Android users might ask the same of iOS users, but consumers have different demands.
Recently, a woman approached me in a coffee shop and asked me to help her connect to the Internet. She put her MacBook Pro in front of me and my jaw dropped when I saw it was running Windows 7. I asked her why she’d ditched Mac OS X and she said it was because her company used software that didn’t run on the Apple operating system.
Like it or not, we’re still bound by the whims of those who make the smartphones we use and, despite the enormous capabilities inherent in their devices, we remain constrained by the artificial walls created by manufacturers. Those walls may be about to come tumbling down.