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Droid X ships amidst controversy over ROM lockdown

Jul 15, 2010 — by Eric Brown — from the LinuxDevices Archive — views

Verizon Wireless and Motorola launched the much-anticipated Android 2.1-based Droid X smartphone for $200, and said they foresee none of the shortages that have plagued other recent Android phones. Yet, modders are up in arms by the news that the Droid X has been locked down to prevent the loading of custom ROMs, say reports.

As promised on June 23 when Motorola and Verizon Wireless announced their high-end follow-up to the successful Motorola Droid, the Droid X went on sale today for $200 (after a $100 mail-in rebate and a new two-year customer agreement).

The Droid X (at right) ships with a 1GHz Texas Instruments Cortex-A8-based OMAP3630 processor, as well as 8GB of flash and a 16GB microSD card. The latter is expandable to up to 40GB via a 32GB SanDisk microSDHC card that costs $99 with the Droid X sale, or $149 separately, according to a story in our sister publication, eWEEK.

The Droid X has a 4.3-inch display with 854 x 480 resolution, an eight-megapixel camera, and 3G mobile hotspot functionality, among other features. For more information on the Droid X, please see our coverage of recent reviews, in which the phone is praised for its battery life, camera, performance, and multimedia prowess.

With its positive reviews, plus the established track record of the original Droid, and the iPhone 4's antenna problem, the Droid X would seem to have the green light to match the sales explosion of the original. Even better for Motorola, it does not appear that the phone will suffer from the display shortages of many competing, high-end Android smartphones such as Sprint's HTC Evo 4G and Verizon's HTC Incredible. Verizon reportedly told CNET that shortages are unlikely with the Droid X.

Droid X lock-down means MotoBlur forever

Yet, Android "modders" — a small, but influential group of hackers who like to modify or replace smartphone installs and show others how to do so — are recommending against the Droid X. The reason is a lock-down mechanism installed on the phone by Motorola that prohibits tinkering with the ROM. The mechanism, for example, will "brick" the phone if a user tries to eliminate or replace the phone's MotoBlur UI layer, say reports.

The news of an "eFuse" chip that prohibits custom installs on the Droid X appeared to have debuted on XDA Forum posts on July 9, and was summarized on July 11 on MyDroidWorld in a post by "P3droid." According to the post, the circa-2004 eFuse chip has been used on other Motorola phones, but has only appeared on one Android model, the Motorola Milestone, a close cousin of the original Droid that's available in Europe and Canada.

The Motorola Droid itself is free of the chip, and lockdown mechanisms have been rare on Android phones in general. But, according to P3droid and other observers, the Milestone's eFuse lock-down has yet to be overcome by modders.

The eFuse is coded with information that it either looks for or is passed to it from the bootloader, explains P3droid. The information is said to include firmware information, kernel data, and the bootloader version. Once the eFuse chip verifies that the information is correct, the boot process continues, he writes.

If the eFuse chip fails to verify the information, as the result of a custom install that would replace the Droid X's modified MotoBlur UI skin, for example, then the eFuse corrupts the boot process, "resulting in a permanent bricking of the phone," writes P3droid. Once it has been tripped, the eFuse chip can be rewritten and the phone repaired, but only by Motorola.

"As you can see this is indeed going to be a tough nut to crack," P3Droid concludes.

Side view of the Droid X

Bloggers have decried the practice, with BusinessInsider's Nick Saint, for example, today writing that Motorola's "idiotic decision" has caused him to change his mind about buying the Droid X. The implementation is particularly unfortunate for the Droid X, because the modified version of MotoBlur used on the device has been widely panned.

eWEEK's Clint Boulton, who otherwise praised the phone, disliked the UI layer, noting its "big, ugly widget buttons" and confusing organization. As Saint puts it, "like most of the Android 'skins,' Motorola's software is awful."

What is particularly vexing to Saint is that the recently released Android 2.2, which will become available on the Droid X next month, offers a native UI stack that is "a massive step forward." According to several reports, Android 3.0 "Gingerbread" will offer a much more dramatic UI overhaul that is intended to reduce fragmentation, and standardize the Android experience by putting the UI layers out of business.

As noted in an AndroidandMe report by Taylor Wimberly on the Droid X lock-down, entitled "Motorola deals blow to the Android modding community," Motorola offered its reasons for adding the eFuse chip when modders rebelled over the Milestone's lockdown.

In a Motorola blog post by Lori Fraleigh at the time (see link below) she wrote, "Securing the software on our handsets, thereby preventing a non-Motorola ROM image from being loaded, has been our common practice for many years. This practice is driven by a number of different business factors. When we do deviate from our normal practice, such as we did with the Droid, there is a specific business reason for doing so. We understand this can result in some confusion, and apologize for any frustration."

As AndroidandMe's Wimberly concludes, "I have little doubt that hackers will gain root access to the Droid X and come up with all kinds of cool tweaks, but the encrypted bootloader will be a major hurdle to overcome on the path to custom ROMs. If you like to hack your Android phone and mod it 'til it won't boot anymore, you might be better off going with HTC or even Samsung at this point."


The Droid X by Motorola is now available from Verizon Wireless for $200 after a $100 mail-in rebate with a new two-year customer agreement. Customers also need to subscribe to a Verizon Wireless Nationwide Talk plan, which starts at $40 per month, and an "Email and Web for Smartphone" plan, which costs $30 per month. The 3G Mobile Hotspot service is available for an additional $20 per month.

More information may be found at Verizon, here, and the Verizon's Droid community page may be found here. (So far, the main complaint there is not about the eFuse lock-down, but about stores already being sold out of the device.)

The eWEEK story on the Droid X launch should be here, and Motorola's blog explanation of its lockdown practice with the Milestone may be found here.

The MyDroidWorld post on the Droid X custom ROM lockdown may be found here, and the BusinessInsider story on the subject should be here. The AndroidandMe story should be here.

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