May 31 AT 8:27 AM Russell Holly 23 Comments

Stop Celebrating: HTC’s unknown Bootloader policy [OPINION]

For the Android modder community, it’s been an emotional couple of weeks. When the HTC Sensation and the HTC Evo3D were announced, there was a great deal of excitement. Each of these devices have a fantastic look and feel to them, and they come with some of the first dual core Snapdragon processors from Qualcomm. Combined with the latest version of HTC’s SenseUI, which is a tremendous improvement over what was already hailed as one of the best Android UI’s, these devices were gaining popularity at an alarming rate.

That is, of course, until it was revealed that these devices would come equipped with HTC’s shiny new cryptographic signature based bootloader. Anger filled the social networks of the world, followed by plans of mass exodus. The Cyanogenmod developer team announced that they had no plans to work with devices locked down in such a way, and even began recommending users switch to LG Android devices. Nearly a week later, HTC’s Facebook page assured the masses that they were “reviewing” their bootloader policy.

Within hours, the internet had mobilized in the form of Facebook comments, thousands of tweets, and petitions all across the web in the hopes that HTC would reconsider. Then, late Thursday night, something that smells oddly like success happened; HTC’s Facebook page had announced, in the form of a message from the CEO of HTC, that they will “no longer be locking the bootloaders on our devices.” As quickly as the internet turned to rage, it turned to sheer rapturous joy. Over 7,700 “likes” on the facebook page, and tens of thousands of tweets and Facebook comments cheering and celebrating this decision were, and still are, being spread across the social universe. Only, what exactly are we all celebrating?

For all intents and purposes, it seems pretty likely that HTC pulled the wool over our eyes, and we not only accepted it, but proceeded to thank them! As a lover of HTC products myself, I’m aware that these seem like harsh sentiments. They come, however, at the disturbing realization that a vast majority have no idea what has actually happened, and more importantly what has been happening to bring us to this point. HTC announced that they would no longer be locking their bootloaders, right? Let’s take a look at what this actually is.

For starters, it is important to point out that prior to the implementation of cryptographic signatures, HTC’s devices were not fully open. Every HTC Android device, with the  exception of the Nexus One, has had some form of software protection on the device to stop users from unlocking the bootloader. An exploit of some kind was discovered on each of the devices in order to achieve “unlocked” status, and the task has been increasingly difficult to accomplish. When an HTC device gets in the hands of a hacker, particularly an hacker, the long process towards breaking these devices becomes their life. Some devices devouring the man with hours worth of attempts, re-attempts, and eventual success, all by volunteers in their free time. This has never really been an easy process, though at times it does seem that way on the outside, especially when devices are unlocked so soon after their release to market.

With this knowledge, I can’t help but ask what HTC actually MEANS by an unlocked bootloader. The only one they’ve ever released that was not specifically a developer phone has been the Nexus One, through a very simple “fastboot oem unlock” command from a computer with the Android Software Development Kit. Will HTC deploy this strategy to all of their new phones, or will they simply resort back to the less difficult previous methods? At this time, HTC has not been willing to comment, but it’s clear that I’m not the only one questioning the definition. Earlier today Verizon Wireless’ twitter account released a statement that unlocked devices “would not be activated on Verizon Wireless”. Before the online rage had reached a fever pitch, Verizon had retracted the statement via Twitter and apologized for the confusion. We may never know wheat went on behind the scenes there, but it shows that even HTC’s partners don’t know what’s going on here.

So, what of existing devices? Once we are offered some sort of definition, will this be applied to existing devices? The hacker community got lucky with the Thunderbolt when an Engineering ROM showed up with everything they needed to skate by, but shouldn’t HTC release something that would allow existing users to legitimately unlock their devices? Or, will they take a que from Motorola, and release their existing batch of devices as planned, and promise to unlock the future ones? For all intents and purposes, the Sensation is finished, fully baked and ready to go. PR reps are already getting review devices sent to them. Will HTC unlock these? There’s no information, only a Facebook post full of wishes. Hopefully HTC makes “the right decision” in this case.

When PC Magazine’s Sascha Seagan commented that “99% of users probably didn’t even know what a bootloader was” I decided to take a look and see exactly who cared about this. When asked, the creator of Rom Manager, a popular piece of software used to managed ROM’s and manipulate the bootloader, noted that he had just above 600,000 active installations of his app. Now, for the sake of argument, and since there’s no other way to track this data, lets assume that for every person who is actively using Rom Manager, there is another person who is either unlocking their bootloader manually, or using some other service. Compare that (speculated) 1.2 million to Google’s recent announcement of 450,000 activations a day and over 100 million total activations of Android, Sascha was pretty darn close.

In the end, we’ve been given very little to go on. HTC’s vague yet hope inspiring statement was a nice gesture, but to have only made the statement on Facebook, and not have followed it up by now with either details or allowed their reps to comment makes me incredibly suspicious that they don’t have an ACTUAL plan yet. With devices like the Sensation and the Evo 3D right around the corner, this statement is sure to boost morale and increase sales, but then they need to actually deliver something. It will already be pretty rough if/when the Sensation gets into the hands of hackers and they find the cryptographic signature still in place. It will be even worse if HTC decides that those devices weren’t included in their statement. We’ve been shown what is essentially an empty bag and been assured it’s full of pixie dust, and that may hurt HTC even worse in the end.

I write things.

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  • http://Website Robert Hallock

    Your sanity is appreciated. I’m tired of seeing the irrationally exuberant claims tossed around in light of HTC’s announcement. Just because the company has pledged to unlock bootloaders does not mean that any of today’s locked devices will make the grade.

    Anything said to the contrary is just wishful thinking from people who aren’t rational and skeptical enough to realize that a promise like this could mean nothing for devices like the Thunderbolt, Incredible S or Sensation. How quick people are to forget Motorola’s promise for unlocked bootloaders.

    I am thankful for HTC’s policy change, and hopeful that we’ll benefit immediately, but I am expecting the worse. It would behoove others to do the same.

    • http://Website Super Android Evo

      We just have to take HTC’s word on this. HTC CEO Peter Chou said this “Our original intent was to reduce the potential quality problem when user (s) upgrade their phone,” also he said this “Anyway, we will unlock it (HTC EVO 3D). Customer satisfaction is very important to us and we want you to have a good experience when you deal with HTC.” As per link ( We can’t speculate & think negatively on this until HTC does something that goes against what the HTC CEO is on record of saying. I don’t know of the HTC Sensation, but I can tell you that the HTC Evo 3D looks to be unlocked. If the CEO says the HTC Evo 3D will be unlocked, then the HTC Sensation should have the same fate since it’s not out in the United States of America yet.

      • http://Website Super Android Evo

        “Stop Celebrating: HTC’s unknown Bootloader policy [OPINION]” I knew this was a Russell Holly article because it’s negative as usual, & not to mention the word OPINION in brackets in the title. I am going to continue to “celebrate” until I have a reason not to. I don’t like “YOU” telling me what to do & what not to do. YOU don’t know if HTC’s bootloader policy is good or not. You as always are speculating & infecting with your “OPINION”! Why can’t you just post about facts in the mobile world instead of your “OPINIONS”. You have received so much backlash that now you have to put [OPINION] in your title. Your colleagues write articles about facts & you are like the color commentator in a sports broadcast with really nothing useful to say. I really don’t want articles about your “OPINIONS” just report facts & we as the readers will form our “OPINIONS”. I hope in the future I don’t have to come to to get news about my favorite OS (Android) & have to read another “OPINION” article from Russell Holly. I wish I could have these 5 minutes of my life back. How about this, can you write a positive article NOT a negative article? Let’s take baby steps…..

        • Clark Wimberly

          I hate to be the one to tell you this, but we’ve always posted and will continue to post opinion pieces like this one. If you’d rather not read them, feel free to skip any post marked “opinion” or “rumor”.

          • http://Website Dags

            Yes, but this one is innacurate, meaningless and needlessly negative. For starters, he makes no attempt to define what an unlocked bootloader is. He says that the Nexus One has one that can be unlocked but then says statements like, “or will they simply resort back to the less difficult previous methods”. Those previous phones susceptible to the “less difficult methods” all had locked bootloaders. So, without any evidence he is calling HTC liars, suggesting they won’t unlock their bootloaders, and even that, “it seems pretty likely that HTC pulled the wool over our eyes, and we not only accepted it, but proceeded to thank them!”.

            No, HTC have said they will ship phones with unlocked bootloaders. Despite what Russell says, there is a definition for an unlocked bootloader and it’s explicitly stated when you issue the “fastboot oem unlock” command. It says, “if you unlock the bootloader, you will be able to install custom operating system software on this phone”. Google knows what it means, Sony Ericsson knows what it means, Samsung knows what it means (Galaxy S II) and even Motorola knows what it means (Xoom). HTC knows what an unlocked bootloader is too because they made the Nexus One. It seems only Russell is in doubt and has written an entire article about it. Until their is some evidence to the contrary, what is the point of writing baseless, negative articles suggesting that HTC will not be true to their word and unlock their bootloaders? There is none and articles like this just devalue your blog.

          • http://Website Hazz

            Just a few lines into the article, and I could tell Russell wrote this. While his spelling and grammar have gotten better over the weeks, I can’t say I appreciate the time I’ve wasted reading his [opinions]. It sucks I have to start filtering the posts I read by who writes the articles. A&ME has had opinion based articles in the past, but from my recollection (about 2 years of reading of this website every day), they have never been so intensely biased. Normally, the article gives two sides, and at the end of it asks us which side we take. A much friendlier and less negative approach. Please bring back Taylor!!

          • AME

            @Hazz A few lines in? I knew as soon as the title began with, “Stop Celebrating.”

            I like opinion pieces and I read them… even Russell’s. It’s interesting to take a break from the stories about leaked images and stuff and hear someone’s take on a real controversial issue. However, no one can doubt that Russell Holly is a serious Negative Nancy. He needs to let some sunshine into his life.

            Maybe if he was forced to use a Blackberry or iPhone for a couple weeks he would start lightening up on Android.

  • keridel

    In the dark cynical part of my mind I have to agree with you.


    I want to believe them. The I want to think that as customers we make a difference.

    The modding community may be small but we are the ones who buy and continue to buy their products. The we are the early early adopters who own not 1 or even 2 htc devices but 3 or 4.

    So yes it could be a lot pixie dust. But i hope it isn’t.

    • http://Website Mark

      Don´t forget that those 3 or 4 are usually also high end phones (high margin), so that 1% is not accurate in revenues and the manufacturers know that. Personally I bought 5 phones in the last 2 years, but recommend more than 50 to my friends. I know that my friends will never install a custom rom or even root, but just in case I never recommended a locked phone even if they seem OK, like the Milestone, Atrix, etc. Most of my friends change their phones every 1 or 2 years, so they need a FUTURE proof phone.

  • http://Website JimboLodisC

    i just figured we were celebrating them not moving forward with more difficult protection… i definitely did not think that this meant they would be selling every phone completely unlocked

  • http://Website Miguel

    I think the editorial on the site Thisismynext said it best. There is no clean way for HTC to back out of what they committed to in their public statements. If they try, or try to cull their words, it will hurt them even more in the long run, and the fury of the enthusiast community may spill over into the mainstream consumer market.

    While I am sure that HTC’s previous phones were not “completely open” as you say, I am sure that there is also aa minimum required level of security so that the average mainstream consumer, who you admit really don’t care about unlocked bootloaders, don’t get hacked into oblivion.

  • http://Website brklynmind

    Rom Manager doesnt “unlock” anything and therefore your statistic is misleading. While I am sure the number of people who are unlocking their bootloader is infinitely tiny. Your analysis based on Rom Manager is useless….

    • http://Website LoSesMC

      But why would anybody not rooted or with an unlocked bootloader to install new roms even have ROM Manager installed?

    • http://Website J.

      ROM Manager requires root access.

      Root access requires an unlocked bootloader.

      Commenting on A&ME doesn’t require anything other than a typing nub and an email address, and in your case, it shows.

  • http://Website cece

    Are you sure only the Nexus one was “unlockable” ?

    Were not the the G1 and HTC Magic also unlocked ? (not all, depending on the carrier distributing it). And in particular, the Magic special developer edition (“ION”) distributed at google IO.
    And these not even needed a “fastboot oem unlock”. You could directly use fastboot to flash ROMs (?)

    • http://Website HolySmokesBatty

      He said the N1 was the only non-developer phone that can unlocked, the Dream/Magic were both released as Developer phones, the ADP1(Dream/G1) and ADP2(Magic/Sapphire/ION).

      • http://Website cece

        The Nexus one was as much a developer phone as the G1 / Magic.
        ADP1/ADP2 sold as developer phone were indeed explicitly sold as developer phones, just as the Nexus one has also been sold as official Developer phone (“ADP3″), not really different !
        But these were not the only versions available unlocked.
        My HTC Magic was from french SFR provider, not sold as a developer phone, but with an unlocked bootloader. (but G1 sold by Orange was always locked…)

  • Eric Mill

    People’s crazy optimism may be higher than it should be, but your cynicism seems completely unmerited. It leaves me with the impression that optimism just makes you angry.

    They delivered a blunt statement about their bootloader policy going forward. They never said anything about existing devices and I wouldn’t be bothered if they did nothing with them. If they ship some stupid unlock solution that’s unnecessarily difficult, we can criticize them. But they’ve opened themselves up for that now, which was a strong, positive move. Even that should be praised for it now, and we can take the next steps as they come.

  • http://Website maxisma

    This is one of the most ridiculous editorials I’ve seen yet. Sorry but, unlocked, by definition means.. unlocked. You know. It’s not “reverting to easier lockdowns”.

  • Scotter

    Thanks! I appreciate your “healthy” skepticism!
    With Samsung raping their customers every chance they get and Motorola offering only the Atrix as a high-end, next-gen device for only AT&T, and LG really needing to prove itself, we have only HTC to count on. We need them to be held accountable.

  • http://Website Micah

    This by far is the worst opinion article I’ve read on here. We praise them on their announcement to even further the unlock “agenda.” What do you want us to do. Not like their post? Not praise them for that announcement? If they come back with something that really isn’t unlocked, then we show HTC that we weren’t just talk. But the skepticism quite frankly is unmerited.

  • http://Website thabet

    we dont have this problem with the iphone. its always easy to unlock. just use blackra1n and thats it.

    • http://Website Micah

      Obvious troll is obvious. :P Jailbreaking the iphone is a lot different than unlocking an android phone. Jailbreaking is basically giving you a default feature that is there on stock android. It allows third party sources. Android devices have that by default (unless the manufacturer or carrier blocks it, like at&t has been known to do, but is changing their policy).