Who really owns your phone?

Android dudes
Android dudes (Image credit: Jerry Hildenbrand / Android Central)

Phones are no longer just a thing you use to call or text people. The days of playing Snake because it's the coolest thing your phone can do are long past. Today, they're more like your computer than they are the Nokias and Motorolas of the past. Because they are computers, software licensing starts to matter more.

I've been thinking about this since the Note 7 started getting forced updates to disable the things that make people want to keep it. A company you didn't actually buy your phone from reaching in with slinky OTA updates to take away things you paid for is a pretty bold thing to do. Granted, in Samsung's opinion, they need to do everything they can do to get every Note 7 sent back for whatever recycling project they have set up. For them, this is 50% a safety issue and 50% a public relations let's-get-people-to-forget-it-ever-existed issue. But for you, it's someone else taking things away.

Samsung details the Note 7 safety issues

And there's not much we can do about it. Forget about the Note 7 for a minute. Any phone — your S7 edge or HTC 10 or anything else — that has Android (and iOS and any other operating system still hanging on) is subject to the rules of the software license you agreed to. And in case you've never looked at them, you need to know that software licenses suck.

Samsung had a good reason to alter the software in the Note 7, but they didn't have to have one.

It doesn't spell it out, but the thing you probably didn't read when you set up your phone says that you don't own the software on it, you didn't buy it and you only get to use it because they people who did create it are letting you. And that they have the rights to change stuff. And that you can't do much about it at all. The plastic and glass and metal that are used to make the thing are yours once you've paid for it in full, but anything that happens after you turn it on isn't.

This is why Samsung can send an update that makes your phone stop working. They have a program in place so that you can get a refund — they don't expect to get anything back without paying us back the money we spent — and they want your Note 7 back in their hands.

It's also why they could send out an update that makes Knox bark at you if you tamper with the bootloader on some of their phones. Or HTC was able to add carrier spyware to any phone they wanted to with an update. Or Google could send an update that makes Android not only very bright and with circular icons, but it could also have glowing pink accents if they wanted it to. You still have a phone that works in accordance with the license you agreed to when you first used it.

Thankfully, the people who make the phones and write the software aren't crazy and want us to like their products. The Note 7 probably needed to be wrecked in order to get more people to turn them in. Samsung needed to address Knox so people who need Knox could tell that something tried to mess with their phone. Sending patches to make bootloaders super encrypted and booby trapped is 100% a security measure. And any Android update that included glowing pink neon menu highlights would go out so slowly none of us would ever get it on the phones we paid for now.

But I like to think in what-ifs. What if the people who make our phone decided that they just wanted to drastically change things in ways that we think are bad? Some phones can be unlocked and modified with a different operating system but the software you use to start up the hardware and load that operating system is software you can't change and you don't have control over. That's "legal" because we're allowed to jailbreak and root and unlock our phones if we can. But that doesn't change who really controls the software you can't get rid of. Someone else decides how you get to use that software, and if you use it in a way they don't approve of you lose your license for it.

The people who made your phone want you to like it and aren't going to try and change that.

No phone police are going to come and snatch away your Android because someone doesn't like the way you use the software. I'm pretty sure most companies don't even care how we use the software on our phones because they are too busy working on the next model. But they still own all the software and only let us use it.

When/if Samsung has to turn it up to 11 and do something more to the Note 7, remember that there isn't anything we can do about it except try and block it from installing. They are acting in good faith to serve your best interests and theirs. We don't know if this is going to happen or if Samsung will decide they have done everything they could. But we do know that it's all up to them because you own the screen and the S Pen and all the rest of the parts, but they own the software that makes those parts do anything.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.