January 3rd, 2012

A Rootlocked Industry

I just heard this morning that the ASUS Transformer Prime will be shipped with a locked bootloader. I wanted to spit; that machine was (until a few hours ago) at the top of my tablet prospects list. Then, about twenty minutes ago, I found the update: ASUS, having felt the Gates of Hell open upon its head for the last four days, decided that it will ship a bootloader unlocker for the product--though at the cost of your warranty.

This topic will be the tech issue of 2012: Whether or not our industry has a rootlocked future.

We've had hints about this for some time. I originally wrote off the fact that Android could not access the Xoom's card slot as some weird failure at Motorola. Then I found that this was only true in the US. Europeans, once they got the Xoom, found full access to the slot. Only where the Xoom was a "Google Experience Device" was the card slot out of reach. So it wasn't Motorola at all. It was Google declaring war on sideloading, lest sideloading thin out their revenue stream from various Google cloud services.

Looking around at promising tablets, it's a rare one now that isn't rootlocked. I evaluated and turned down the Nook Tablet for that reason. (The original Nook Color is still what I consider an open system--though for how long no one knows.) The Xoom 2/XYBoard no longer has a card slot. (Rounded corners are not enough to make me pull the plastic out.)

Put as simply as possible, all of the major vendors want to make the handheld market basically what the TV market is today: A completely locked end-to-end pipeline that guards content from server to screen. ASUS was very clear about that: They had to lock the TP's bootloader to get Google to allow Google video rentals to operate on the machine. Motorola hasn't confirmed it, but I'm sure it was the same for the original Xoom. Calling it "video rental" is a misnomer. It's really pay-per-view, which Big Content has wanted to do for many years. The PC market evolved in too open a fashion to make that possible. The tablet market, by contrast, seems to be jumping right into their pockets.

Part of this is the idiotic "give away the razor, sell the blades" business model. Tablets are often cheaper than they would otherwise be, because their vendors expect to make money on content, with content subsidizing the device cost to the end user. People now expect a tablet to cost no more than a certain amount, and so getting a truly open tablet (without a locked content stream) on the market at a competitive price is far more difficult.

Side comment: Yes, I am an anomaly. I see two or three movies a year (at the theater) and do not watch TV at all. I do read a lot of books, and I'm certainly willing to pay for them, but I do not buy as many as I might if I were more sure that they would not simply evaporate on me someday, due to a corporate bankruptcy or some kind of patent or IP rights battle that doesn't involve me. If an ebook costs more or less the same as a hardcover, I buy the hardcover. It's unclear how prevalent my attitude is, but I'm sure it's prevalent enough to depress digital revenues significantly.

I've already mentioned that Android isn't an OS in the same sense that Windows is. Vendors and carriers can make mods to Android that basically fork the open-source base and turn it into separate OS species that are more "Android compatible" than anything like a single OS. Android isn't a GPL product. It uses the Apache 2.0 license, which does not compel vendors to release changes back into the community. So Android is a hybrid of open and closed technology that makes the sealed content pipeline possible. (Otherwise, the community would just edit out what it didn't like and recompile the OS.)

2012 will be an interesting year. The top vendors like Apple, Motorola, and Samsung have enough market share to get away with this. Smaller vendors like ASUS (and down from there) do not. My hope is that we will see smaller vendors offer truly open high-quality Android tablets that do everything but offer pay-per-view content, and are capable of booting into other versions of the OS, or another OS entirely. I'd pay more for such a tablet. A year from now we may know. Stay tuned.