Update: ... And apparently HTC has changed its mind and decided to update to Gingerbread after all. Go figure.

So you woke yesterday morning to the news that your trusty HTC Desire will be left without an official upgrade path to Android 2.3 Gingerbread, and now the world seems a cold and uncaring place. Fear not -- we’ve got the complete lowdown on what today’s news means for Desire owners, along with a details of some leading Gingerbread-based custom ROMs that can bring you right up to date with the latest version of Android.

Let’s begin by revisiting exactly what was announced today, and what it means for Desire owners.

What’s the big deal? Should I be angry?

First released on the Nexus S late last year, Android 2.3, nicknamed “Gingerbread,” is the latest version of Android for smartphones. HTC had been promising to update the Desire to the new version of Android before the end of June, but now it appears that there simply wasn’t enough room on the Desire’s internal storage for both Gingerbread and HTC’s Sense software. This means Desire owners who like to stick with official software will remain on Android 2.2 Froyo indefinitely.

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Gingerbread is a relatively minor update for Android (in the scheme of things), but the fact that a popular phone like the Desire has been left out of the Gingerbread party sucks for everyone involved. If you're unwilling or unable to hack your phone, you're left on a year-old version of the OS, while HTC loses some face as a result of promising the update and then having to back down and offer an apology instead. However, no amount of bitter, caps-locked Facebook comments or tweets will change the technical limitations of the phone. And no, this probably isn’t part of a vast conspiracy to get you to drop £500 on a shiny new Sensation either. (Though you could spend that money in worse ways.)

Why doesn’t HTC just give us Gingerbread without Sense?

The Sense UI, in addition to being HTC's baby, is a big part of why many customers choose HTC phones. If HTC were to update the Desire to Gingerbread and strip out Sense in the process, their tech support channels would be inundated by regular users asking why their phone’s software had suddenly changed. In stock Android there wouldd suddenly be no HTC clock widgets, no Friend Stream, a different browser, a different mail client, a different lock screen, a different dialer app. And on top of that, a large chunk of user data would have to be jettisoned because it’d be in the wrong format to be recognized by the stock Android apps. Most customers would see this as a downgrade, not an upgrade.

Which is why no manufacturer would ever want to pick apart its own software to suit a small, vocal group of users, at the expense of the vast majority of its customer base.

What’s so great about Gingerbread? Am I missing out by staying on Android 2.2?

There might not be a single killer app or major technological breakthrough in Android 2.3, but a number of smaller improvements and tweaks were brought in, along with some fairly important security upgrades and bug fixes.

We’ve played around with a couple of leaked test builds of Android 2.3.3 for the HTC Desire over the past couple of months, and we found they were pretty much the same as Froyo (Android 2.2). The few things that were noticeable were only minor differences -- the clock widget was animated, the browser looked a bit different, the battery icon was a slightly different color (yes, we notice these things). There certainly wasn’t anything close to the massive performance boost given to the Desire by the initial update to Android 2.2. Nor was any new functionality unlocked, like the Wifi Hotspot app included in Froyo for the Desire.

So the visible differences were pretty small. The more important changes in Gingerbread lie behind the scenes. The infamous SMS message bug is still present in the current Desire firmware, but would’ve been fixed in Gingerbread. A number of vulnerabilities in the OS itself have been patched between version 2.2 and 2.3.3, leaving users less susceptible to malicious apps. Improved garbage collection would’ve boosted performance in memory-hungry apps. All small changes, but certainly not insignificant when considered as a whole.

However, the stock HTC Desire firmware, with Froyo and HTC Sense, still offers a great smartphone experience. If you're happy with the way your Desire runs at the moment, then you shouldn't lose too much sleep over the cancelled Gingerbread upgrade. Chances are it wouldn't have changed much in terms of day-to-day use anyway.

Of course, if you want to try something a little more exotic ...

I want Gingerbread. What are my options?

Well, to get Gingerbread, you'll need to install a custom ROM, and your quest begins with getting your Desire rooted and fitted with a custom recovery. Unrevoked is the easiest way of doing this, though you’ll want to check the documentation and make sure you have the correct HTC drivers installed before beginning. After that, it’s pretty much a case of connecting your phone, pressing a button and you’re good to go.

Rooting the Desire may be relatively easy, but you should still take care and read up on what you're doing first. You'll need to be fairly tech-savvy, and if something goes wrong then there’s a chance you could brick your phone. Rooting will also void your warranty, as you might expect.

The Desire has a lively custom ROM community, most of which is based around the XDA Desire Development forum. There you'll find a whole host of Gingerbread-based custom firmware for your phone, some based on the Android Open Source Project, some based on HTC Sense ROMs from newer phones like the Desire S and Sensation. These include:

  • CyanogenMod, the granddaddy of them all. The current stable version 7 is based on stock Android 2.3.3. If you're feeling more adventurous, you can try the nightly builds, which are based on version 2.3.4. As well as the latest version of Android, the CyanogenMod team has added a ton of new features for controlling almost every aspect of your phone, from automatic brightness levels and lockscreen gestures to CPU clock speeds.
  • Oxygen was one of the first Gingerbread-based ROMs for the Desire, created by XDA members AdamG and Thalamus. Oxygen aims to be as clean and hack-free as possible, while still improving upon stock Android with new features like FM radio support, Facebook contact sync and notification area widgets.
  • DevNull is another custom ROM by the Oxygen team, designed to be as minimalistic as possible. Basically DevNull is as close as you'll get to turning your Desire into a Nexus One -- this is pure, vanilla Gingerbread without any mods or hacks.
  • MoDaCo offers fully customizable Desire ROMs based on AOSP (Gingerbread) or Sense (Froyo). After selecting your base, you can cherry-pick features and pre-installed apps to create the ideal software package for your needs -- much easier than juggling apps between zip files.
  • InsertCoin is a Gingerbread ROM that combines elements from Sense 2.1 and 3.0. You get the fancy new ring-based lockscreen and weather animations from Sense 3.0, along with familiar Sense 2.1 features like the quick settings and app switcher areas in the notification pull-down. As with many larger Sense-based ROMs, you'll need an ext partition on your SD card to install InsertCoin. 
  • CoolKingdom is one of the more ambitious Sense ROMs, as it aims to fully port Sense 3.0 to the HTC Desire. It's currently in the early stages of development, and so there are bugs to be found, but it's still impressive to see features usually reserved for the likes of the Sensation running on hardware over 12 months old.

There are dozens of other custom ROMs available for the Desire, which will surely see its life extended long into the future, even if official support ends at Android 2.2. It's disappointing that HTC hasn't been able to deliver on its promised Gingerbread update, but at the same time today's news serves to demonstrate one of the greatest strengths of the Android community. With hundreds of developers still hacking away at phones like the Desire, there will always be a way to breathe new life into older hardware.