A safe and secure phone often means one that makes things hard on the folks who like to tinker with their toys. But it's not always a cat-and-mouse sort of game.
Our Android phones are more secure than ever. We've got things like SELinux and Samsung's KNOX and all sorts of behind-the-scenes things that keep our data safe and sound, out of the hands of, well, anyone who's not us.
But that sort of safety net doesn't always jibe with the modding community, without whom smartphones may well still be stuck in the Stone Age. The other side of making our phones more secure is that it's not always easy to crack them open in the first place. A scant few offer unlockable bootloaders. And even kernel sources aren't released as we'd expect them to be.
There are manufacturers that don't completely lock things down, of course. And I was a little intrigued to see the recently announced Honor 5C immediately see support from longtime modding community MoDaCo, just as soon as the phone went official.
MoDaCo (and its founder, serial modder Paul O'Brien, for sure) are longtime names in the modding circles. And Honor has certainly upped its game in the mid-range market of late, and we're only going to hear more from the Huawei offshoot. We caught up with Paul via email to see how this not-quite-partnership came about.
It certainly appears as though Honor is embracing modding like few others, going beyond "By the way, the bootloader is unlockable." … Can you talk about if/how you're actively working with Honor on this one?
"I've been an Honor fan for a while now, not just the devices, but the approach that they take to engage with their users. A strong social presence, face-to-face events, a big presence at DroidCon, that sort of thing. Honor have been very supportive of MoDaCo too, which is nice! As you know, when I start using a device it's inevitable that I wind up hacking about on it and traditionally Honor/Huawei has had a bit of a bad rep in this regard. It's assumed that if you buy one of these devices, it'll be hard to mod it. That's like a red rag to me, particularly as I have a few family and friends using Honor devices, and I'm using a Huawei P9 Plus as my daily driver now.
Thankfully, although the Honor UK team haven't provided specific technical support for my efforts, they have ensured that I have a line of communication open, which obviously pays dividends in getting a head start when devices like the 5C come to market. More than anything else though it's been a voyage of discovery for me — once I started learning about the internals of how the Honor/Huawei devices work, it kinda snowballed.
Often times just having the kernel source isn't really enough, right? There's still … plenty of work to be done. (But that's sort of the point, maybe?) What does having all these pieces at the same time — stock ROM, kernel, unlock, etc., and at launch — mean for folks looking to mod the 5C?
Sure, and as I mentioned, there's a perception (quite legitimately in the past) that getting working kernel source for Honor/Huawei devices (including Honor, of course) is hard work. The key word here is "working" — lots of manufacturers are guilty of posting up kernel source that doesn't compile, has bits missing, isn't right for the actual shipping device, isn't updated, etc. Most OEMs can improve in this area. And if I can help make that a reality, then I will. It's always worth remembering that under the terms of the GPL (General Public License), this is something that's not optional — companies are legally obliged to be in compliance.
It's been a voyage of discovery for me — once I started learning about the internals of how the Honor/Huawei devices work, it kinda snowballed.
The kernel source is just a small part of the puzzle. One of the biggest challenges is that the kernel source doesn't really let you do anything on its own. You need to be able to build the kernel (which means having the kernel config), pack that into a boot image and flash it on your device at the very least — that means being able to unlock the bootloader and having a stock boot image to pull the ramdisk from (which sits alongside the kernel). It's also important that when you start messing with your device, you can flash back to a stock ROM to fix your device if it all goes a bit wrong.
The 5C is pretty unique in having all these things in place and easily accessible from the off, which should mean that for 5C owners who want to have a play around, they won't get stuck. Obviously this is good news for Honor too — people won't be making warranty claims when the inevitably start getting into tricky situations because they want to mod their phone!
Is there anything about the 5C (or Honor phones in general) that make them more or less easy to work on than, say, Huawei proper, or other similar manufacturers?
Honor phones from a technical perspective are Huawei phones, so they are no more easy or hard to work on than devices from their parent company. Building up custom ROMs based on CyanogenMod, Omni etc. is definitely challenging right now, particularly on the Kirin-based devices. But over the coming months I have a feeling that is going to start to improve a lot. This is important because of Emotion UI — which, although often criticized excessively in my opinion — definitely isn't for everyone. One thing that is nice about the Huawei phones from a modding perspective is that they are pretty hard to break. They have a quite unique way of managing their recovery partitions (yes, there are two!) and have a pretty good fallback for a worst case scenario where you need to completely re-flash back to stock. That's not to say they're unbrickable ... they're just less fragile than some devices I've worked with!
A lot of folks are curious about modding their phones, but many of the more mainstream devices make that difficult these days. Is this a good one for someone to learn on? (The price, obviously, but what else?)
Aside from the fact that the tools are already out there to start messing around with the 5C, it makes a good device to start playing with because the Huawei modding community is still in its infancy, particularly outside China. So there's an opportunity to really engage with people looking to do something different with their devices. It almost feels like the 'scene' did for other manufacturers a few years ago. As you say, the price is a big factor too — it's a lot less scary to hack about on a £150 phone than a £500 one. It's priced competitively enough, and more than capable enough, to be a second phone that's actually enjoyable to use.
Is this sort of cooperation from a manufacturer a sort of sea change? Or just a company doing right by its fans?
Right now we see a couple of OEMs starting to appreciate that this sort of thing is important. Nextbit is a good example, and over the past few days we've seen OnePlus step up with device trees etc. too. I have been approached by a number of Chinese manufacturers about this sort of thing, so it's certainly on the radar of the smaller players. It's hard to know if there's motivation for the bigger companies in the Android ecosystem to engage with the enthusiast market in this way, but even if they don't go for a full on approach, there are things they all can do better. As Android fans, we should encourage them to do so and applaud them when they do.