Why is T-Mobile holding up the release of their cupcake update? Why would you want to install the cupcake update manually, when you will eventually get it? What are the pros and cons of using a non T-Mobile build of Android? Where is my cupcakes?
In order to better understand this upgrade process, allow us to examine the relationship between HTC, Google, and T-Mobile. HTC is the hardware manufacturer of the G1, Google develops the Android operating system, and T-Mobile sells the device to end users with a service contract. All three companies are members of the Open Handset Alliance which exists to push the Android platform. A similar comparison that is more familiar with many of you would be the way Dell, Microsoft, and Time Warner operate.
So what does any of this have to do with Cupcake? Let’s look at the PC side first and see how they operate together. Microsoft develops the Windows operating system and then Dell pays for a license to distribute it on their PCs. Does Dell ship out a plain vanilla version of Windows? No. They take the operating system and then modify it by adding additional software and drivers for their equipment.
Time Warner basically provides no role in the operating system, except that they choose to offer support for it. If you would like, you could take your Dell PC and load a version of Linux onto it, but then Time Warner would not provide you with technical support. They exist in this scenario for one purpose, to provide you internet access.
Now let’s look back at Android and examine the similarities. When Google releases a new version of Android, T-Mobile takes it and adds their own software like MyFaves. At the same time, HTC releases their own images of Android that lack the T-Mobile branding. They do this so that developers can take the latest release and test it to ensure compatibility with their applications. Just like in the PC world, if you do not like the version of the operating system that shipped with your device, you can install an alternative.
The huge difference between these two scenarios is that Microsoft Windows is a closed operating sytem and Android is open source(mostly). Since Android is open source, it is actually encouraged that users take the operating system and modify it to their liking. And that is exactly what has happened. Android enthusiasts like Jesusfreke have taken the Android operating system and modified it to include new features like multitouch, installing apps to your SD card, WiFi tethering, and more.
Pros of an alternate version of Android
The biggest advantage of having an alternate version of Android is freedom. Instead of allowing T-Mobile to dictate how you use your phone, you have the power to choose what apps are installed on your device. Even if you do know how to modify the operating system yourself, there are many versions out there including releases from Jesusfreke, Haykuro, and The Dude. The highlights of an alternate build are:
- Full root access to modify the operating system however you see fit
- Support for new features like multitouch
- More frequent updates vs T-Mobile
- Ability to upgrade on your own schedule and not T-Mobile’s
- Option to install other Linux distros like Ubuntu
As you can see from the recent cupcake update, the root users had several weeks head start to play with the new Android 1.5. T-Mobile USA has yet to confirm the details of their rollout and it could be weeks before everyone gets it.
Cons of an alternate version of Android
The real power users would tell you there are no cons of an alternate build, but the average person could run into difficulty. And when they run into difficulty, where do they turn? That is the main concern at this point in time.
If you are not running an official T-Mobile version of Android, they are not likely to offer you support when you run into problems. Thankfully, the community of root users grows every day and many people are willing to help. So instead of picking up the phone to dial T-Mobile support, you might ask your question via Twitter or any of the Android forums.
Another concern that has not really been discussed is T-Mobile’s position on the alternate builds. To date, I have seen nothing from them that would indicate they frown upon it. We are in essence like their beta testers and I believe we contribute greatly to the community. If they have accepted us this long, I doubt they will move to disrupt the open source community.
So should I root my phone or leave it alone?
If you are coming to me and asking about rooting your phone, it really depends on your technical knowledge. Each month that passes the upgrade process is simplified, but there are still quite a few hoops to jump through. In the future it might be as simple as 1-click and I would suggest it to more people, but we are not there.
Look in the mirror and ask yourself this question: Am I comfortable loading an operating system on my home PC? If the answer is yes, then by all means go ahead. If you are not really sure, I’d sit on the sidelines a little longer and wait for the process to be refined even further.
If you are still curious about this whole root process, you can browse through our root guide that is a work in progress. I’m not ready to remove the huge warning I placed on it, but you can still browse it over to see what is actually involved.