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.

  • Interesting read. Enjoyed it as I usually do. Nice article Jerry.
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  • The only thing I don't like about this article is that it wasn't written 5 years ago. It says things that very much need to be said, but unfortunately it will be vigorously argued against and downright hated my many that read it. A lot of people have the attitude that they bought the phone so it should do whatever they want it to and nobody can tell them different. Any article about locked bootloaders will elicit that response from many. An understanding that the phone and the software are two different entities is simply missing.
  • I definitely have the attitude that I bought the phone and should be able to do what I want with it, but I don't disagree with this article, because it's correct. As you say, hardware and software are septate. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't be able to modify either or both. It's why I've almost always bought unlocked phones and one of the first criteria I check beforehand is the bootloader policy. It's not something I necessarilyagree with, but I don't think people can complain too much that they can't modify the S7 edge they lease from Verizon...
  • The problem is that the device and software SHOULDN'T be two different things. Once bought, it should be 100% owned by whoever bought it, no strings attached. SW licensing is one of the worst things ever created and should be gotten rid of ASAP. Same thing does for copyrighted media.
  • I agree. Once you pay it off or buy it full price on day one, it's yours. YOU own it. And if that software resides on said hardware to make it run, it should automatically become part of the hardware.
  • +1
  • So then it is up to user to provide themselves with security updates and any software updates?
  • NO. Security and updates would be provided when available as per agreement. If the agreement is for 18 months, then you would get them for at least that long. But in the SW agreement, it should give you the option to either take the updates or deny them to never be nagged about it again.
  • If you take this stance (which I'm not completely disagreeing with), you would be the one responsible for software updates, or lack thereof. The manufacturer would no longer be on the hook for fixing any bugs/issues, or even providing android version updates. Want new software? Buy their new phone. Is there a problem with the camera software? It will get fixed (hopefully) in the next device. If you are lucky enough to buy one with the ability to unlock the bootloader, and has good forum support, this is not an issue. But only a small portion of the phone using community cares about rooting/flashing/etc.
  • 4 words. MY. COLD. DEAD. FINGERS.
  • You probably should've worn gloves.
  • Or tucked them under your arms.
  • Down his pants would be warmer.
  • Late to the party on almost all counts. I've been calling them "pocket computers" or "palmtops" since I bought a Nokia Communicator last century. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation (among others) have been fighting for consumers right to own their computers - whether it's a traditional desktop, a smart phone, a DVR or a the smarts in a tractor - for almost all as long.
  • Jerry, you're always saying that people need to read things like permissions and license terms before clicking on them. You may want to take your own advice here. In the Note 5 (and assumably the Note 7, I never actually had one) it's made pretty clear in the licensing terms that Samsung owns the software and has the right to modify it at any time.
  • You didn't read the article did you? Let me give you a snippet:
    "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."
  • Oh the irony.
  • Lol
  • And if I compile Android from AOSP from scratch with a device with a fully unlockable bootloader?
  • that was covered with the bootloader section... you'll also probably need to license things like chipset drivers if you want the CPU, GPU and modems to work properly. You can't just compile AOSP into a flushable ROM and have it work on a phone, it's only about two thirds of a working OS. The other this is proprietary software.
  • Obama owns my phone along with the NSA.
  • Obama?
    Who dat?
  • He's just this guy, you know?
  • He was just an Obummer.
  • Haha!!
  • I heard he left the Whitehouse. Was he the butler?
  • Um, you might want to check the date and ANY news from the past month.
  • Speaking of not reading things, it seems like this article has not been proof read. There's a couple typing errors. Though I shouldn't be surprised as it's fairly common on this site.
  • It must be nice to be perfect!
  • Then please, by all means, stop reading this site and find a more "perfect" site that doesn't display any typographical errors. We won't stop you. Promise.
  • I done seed no topographical errers! You be seen' tings!
  • You own the phone but they own the operating system
  • In my own experience something as simple as rooting your phone takes away the possibility of OTAs. If that isn't good enough there's Roms,exploits and even airplane mode. I'm pretty sure this is my phone.
  • Nice informative article. Thanks for this, Jerry.
  • I think Samsung could have dealt with the Notes by flagging the EMEI/ESN numbers. Blocking the devices from connecting to every mobile network would remove the desire to carry it around all the time.
  • Except that's not Samsung's decision. They certainly have pull but they don't run the networks.
  • Samsung could have sent a small file to the carriers to push as network optimization (think PRL if you use Verizon or Sprint) that would make them inoperable and there is no way to block it.
  • Obama's fault
  • Good article Jerry, as usual. Thanks.
  • Damn that Note 7 is sexy... RIP
  • Interesting article, never thought of it that way.
  • Great read uncle Jerry!
  • Any attempt to break(not disable) the hardware, is wrong. I see that the s7's hardware was disabled, not broken. This, I can understand.
  • I can't claim to have looked into this particular issue in any detail, but I will say that just because it's written in your contract doesn't mean it's legally valid.
    The consumer laws of any given country takes precedence over any specific condition.
    An example is Apple (and Microsoft, Sony and others) claiming the right to switch any defect components in your device with tested but used components, in case it breaks down within the warranty period. This is a condition of any contract you sign with these companies upon buying any hardware, but it has recently been deemed in violation of our consumer laws in a court of law here in Denmark, forcing said companies to re-word their terms.
    As I said, I have no particular knowledge of software contracts, but I do know that accepting the conditions stated in any contract unquestioningly is rather naive, and is simply making it easy for these companies to get off the hook...
  • Well,it might just be enforceable in lah lah land America,but here in the e.u,we have different laws and a different outlook on who owns what,which is why many e.u citizens have bought their phones outright for over a decade,while it still seems a new,novel idea to most Americans...
    There will be cases hitting the courts in the e.u fairly soon involving boot loaders being totally locked etc..
  • If it makes you feel better, keep telling yourself that... I haven't had a phone with a locked bootloader for 4 years now, let alone one that I didn't buy outright. Even before when I did, there was a method out within a month or so to unlock the bootloader while people from the EU cried on forms that the US method didn't work on their EU model variant.
    Currently using the Axon 7 US version, bought outright, unlocked, unlocked bootloader, all network access, dual sim GSM/CDMA 4g LTE.
  • Good read...thanx Jerry!
    I know a thank you pales amongst the knowitall replies that seldom say thanks. We might be conditioned to agree to use agreements to avoid complicating our lives.
    Some time ago my wife made a title closer explain in detail every point on the agreement.
    I think the closer actually enjoyed it.
  • The moral of this article is:
    "You own nothing unless you make it wholly by yourself."
  • Ha, I was thinking the same thing.
  • We are at the mercy of carriers, Google and manufacturers.
  • Interesting. Timely too. Just watched Jason Bourne where the CIA was strong arming an OS tech company to leave a back door in its software for government access. Seems, worth most software license verbiage as it is, a government would simply need to "force" a company to exercise the rights it already has to cause damage. Fortunately, we don't have leaders like that in real life... ...oh, wait a minute...
  • Dishonesty will always be a crime.
  • No necessarily. If I say I'm from Mars that is clearly dishonest. Yet not illegal.
  • It's still criminal depending on who you say it to and when you say it. Try making that statement to the law when they ask for your ID and it's a crime.
  • C I A
  • I think it should be like this. If the phone your using is leased or on payments, you don't own it until it's paid off. Once it's bought and paid for, you own it, hardware and software. If said software included on the phone is required to make the hardware you purchased operate, the SA becomes null and void.
  • Agreed.
  • Great idea, China would especially love it. Buy a device, own the hardware and software so you can turn around, reverse engineer it and sell it for a fraction of the competition. Since it's not licensed, the company that invested billions into R&D has to watch their product get ripped off around the world.
  • They do that now and it's called custom roms. But no, intellectual property is still in play here for whom developed the hardware and software. You can do with it as you please because you own it for personal use. You change it, sell it, and make a profit, that's called theft and copyright infringement.
  • Exactly.
  • good article
  • People in general nowadays are total fools to believe they have or want "freedom" to do what they want.
    Stop it. No you don't. Not in your job, your car, your internet usage, or in walking down the street.
    The connected age is upon us. What we DO have the right to fight for is more transparency, in who and what people have access to it, and what they do with the information.
    Your car spies on you, traffic cams, store CCTV, credit and debit cards, ATM machines, phones, computers, IOT devices, routers, wifi hotspots, satellites... Who cares! Privacy is a lie that died when electricity changed the world. Get over it. Be a good human, do the right and safe thing in life, and let the fascade of the world blind you right until the oceans lap at your heels... Oh and maybe move from Florida, since it is just a sandbar hovering above the rising tides...
  • Is an ATM machine the machine that makes ATMs?
  • I think ATM's are made by the CCTV's he speaks of! I could be wrong....I usually am....:)
  • My mum.
  • That's why I like unlocked bootloader and custom OS. No more OTAs doing who knows what.
  • Samsung also needs to protect themselves from law suits. There are people who would want their phones to burn their house down and have Samsung buy them a new house. You're free to go off the grid, but then you'll get bored and come back.
  • This is why one of the first things I do is disable the OTA updater to take back some level of control, especially considering I buy my phones outright (only pay the carrier for their service). As such I consider it MY device (hardware and software) and I can do what I want with it whether that's leaving it on the original release stock OS forever or rooting/unlocking it and loading a custom ROM. :)
  • The same applies to your desktop operating system, at least in the case of Windows and MacOS. With Linux, you are much more in control.