What’s this Rooting Nonsense, Anyway?

Rooting is the process by which you (re)gain full administrative access of your phone or tablet. Even though Android is an open source operating system – you still don’t have full “root access” to do what you please. Back when the iPhone launched in 2007 the more technically included quickly realized the true potential of the device, and the cruel software limitations that Apple had sealed it with. What became ‘Jailbreaking’ on the iPhone was quickly translated to other platforms as well, and when the world saw the first Android device back in 2008, the term “Rooting” was born.

Why Rooting Scares Google

Rooting your device lets you run any application you want  – and it is increasingly becoming a popular choice amongst the more technically-minded members of the Android community. These days, rooting is much a less challenging process, with members of the development community creating great tools like SuperOneClick and others to perform device rooting in a few clicks. The decision to root ones device(s) is not without some risk however, and usually comes with an understanding that manufacturers wont honor a device’s warranty if they discover it has been rooted.

Much to the chagrin of open-source advocates, Google appears to be taking steps to clamp down on the process – and has officially confirmed that rooted devices won’t be allowed to play nice with its newly debuted movie rental service that has recently been announced.

Users that have rooted their device who attempt to use the movie rental service will receive a ‘Error 49’ message when attempting to play a movie on a rooted device.  Google has confirmed in a help article on its Android Market website. “Rooted devices are currently unsupported due to requirements related to copyright protection.”

Google has already enraged the music industry for debuting Google Music without coming to prior agreement from industry big-wigs, and is obviously reacting in such a way that attempts to strike a balance between what users are looking for (good content), coupled with a strong DRM (Digital Rights Management) solution to protect the intellectual property of the Media companies involved. This is a reasonable fear, of course, as rooted devices with super-user access will be able to find a way around the digital restrictions management technology – it’s just a matter of time. Undoubtedly, a war is brewing, and there is little Google will be able to do to prevent savvy users from being able to download a film for free, or keep it permanently once the rental period has expired.

For users who want to option of participating in Google’s film rental programme, the message is clear: you can choose between the flexibility of a rooted device, or the ability to rent films through the Android Market – but not both.

Follow the Money

Ultimately, as Intel’s CEO just alluded to an a recent earnings call, the more devices with Android on-board, the more money Google makes. Google distributes Android freely to manufacturers and makes money through advertising. It’s a very long term approach, and one that is already paying off. Rooting enables the user to take full ownership and control of their device, and do with it what they please. In the process, they can block all advertising on their phone, delete Carrier mandated bloatware, put up a firewall that stops information from going back to advertisers, developers and even Google itself. So, rooting is actually a very threatening process to the big G, and potentially one that threatens its business model as well. While Google has played nice for the time being, it is clear that this is the beginning of a long and challenging struggle that is likely to alienate Android’s most ardent evangelists.

The Reality of the Situation

Android is now the world’s number one mobile operating system, capturing over 36% of smartphone sales in the first quarter of 2011, and this is a trend that is unlikely to slow down – in fact, it’s accelerating. Android will likely be on over 50% of smartphones sold sometime within the next 12 months.

Google has always known that early adopters and open source evangelists have been profound purveyors of Android love, at least initially. They are the technology thought leaders in their communities and peer groups, and are arguably a big part of the reason why Android has become so successful, so quickly. However, the buck has to stop somewhere – so to speak – and Google now has the difficult task of reconciling what users want, and what pays.

In all reality however, the percentage of Android users that actually root their devices is still quite low, and occupies a similar percentage ‘territory’ to that of users who jailbreak their iOS device. At the end of the day, Google and the Android team are doing what they think is best for the platform as a whole. Everything they are currently doing, such as reigning in fragmentation, unifying the OS to work on a wide array of devices, and providing easy to use content ecosystems are all harbingers of great things to come.

Darcy LaCouvee
Darcy is the editor in chief at Android Authority. He follows the latest trends and is extremely passionate about mobile technology. With a keen eye for spotting emerging trends and reporting them, he works hard to bring you the best analysis, updates, and reports on all things Android. Darcy lives and breathes the latest mobile technology, and believes Android will be on a billion devices in the not too distant future.
  • I suspect that rooting does not scare Google. They committed to the Nexus concept, and that those would never be locked-down.

    I am a superuser on my windows computer, and that doesn’t allow me to defeat DRM. Every *NIX box has a superuser, and they don’t defeat DRM. I cannot easily bit-for-bit copy a DVD, but that is due to firmware on the DVD drive.

    In any case every computer requires an administrator that can maintain it. To do that the administrator either needs to be a superuser, or be able to work as one via ‘su’ (simulate user), or ‘sudo’ (simulate user: do). That’s what rooting allows. This is an absolute requirement. You can’t even backup your computer without this.

    So, if this is important, and Google recognizes this to some extent, then what is the deal about taking this away? The carriers want to pretend you have a phone, and back when users did have phones, they were locked-down by virtue of the fact that their firmware was on ROM (read-only memory). Doesn’t Android have ROMs? No, Android does not. We call the Java-ish parts of our OS “ROMs”, but that’s just a slang holdover term. In reality Android is file-based, runs on Linux, and is very much a powerful workstation OS. Properly working with Linux requires root, as mentioned, you can’t even do a proper backup without it. The people at Google know this, they wanted it this way, they are not afraid of it. Their commitment to Nexus implies this strongly.

    We don’t have phones. We have *NIX computers with a phone function. We need to acknowledge this. Once everyone realizes that this is a computer, we will all feel less icky about root.

    So if Google knows better, than what’s the deal with movie rentals?

    This was probably a requirement of one of the content providers, and Google is probably under an NDA about it. It’s the providers’ money to lose. When content is convenient, such as on Netflix, users pay: that convenience-itself has value to them. When content is not convenient users, especially young users (of which I am not), choose bit torrent, and the like. This is the studio’s money to lose. They help with convenience, they get paid, they take convenience away, and they get pirated.

    There are two concepts here that are hangups, because of how we think, due to our choice of words.
    1) Phones should not be hacked: but these aren’t phones at all. They are computers, and as the owner, you are the admin. We all need to stop using the word “phone”. It totally confuses the issue. It’s not a phone. It’s a computer.
    2) Piracy: today’s product is convenience. Provide that, and users will pay. Think of your product as something that must be inconvenient, and users will not pay. Even those that can’t pirate won’t pay, they will go elsewhere.

    • very well put and I couldn’t agree more. we have mobile computers now and we ought to be able to use them like computers. . . sure, some protection for the novice and those that may brick their device is warranted on the OEMs’ & carriers’ part but to attempt to keep knowledgeable people from truly owning their device is just wrong.

    • DogOfWar

      I think you are right. But, for the wrong reasons.
      Google has exploited human psychology right from its infancy.
      Its still doing that now. They learned from the mistakes made by Microsoft, IBM, Apple and the others, as well as their success’s.
      Google/Oracle realized the opportuinty to recreate the world of computers in Linux.
      They gave it an alias “Android” and hid it until it was too late for the others to fight it.
      Human nature is this; Put out a sign on a pile of unwatched crap that says “FREE” and likely no one will take it, put out the same pile of unwatched crap that says “ONLY A DOLLAR”….AND SOMEONE WILL STEAL THE WHOLE PILE!
      Humans, especially smart ones, like the thrill of getting away with something that is not permitted or taboo.
      Can you think of a better way to get a massive community of highly skilled developers to do your dirty work?

    • stephanie

      god? is that you? amen…

  • Howie_in_AZ

    I think you covered why Google (and developers, it seems) should be not so much “afraid” of rooting as irked by it. If users are going to install firewalls and ad-blocking applications, ad-supported applications will eventually disappear because developers have no way to recoup their development costs. This is A Bad Thing(tm). Google apparently thinks simple permissions will defeat/deter piracy, which is surprising seeing that they’re mostly a bunch of really intelligent people and this is an incredibly naive idea. Then again with Android being mostly open source I don’t see how Google could sneak in a DRM framework without it being inspected and circumvented by anyone with access to the Android source GIT repo… unless they made the DRM framework non-open source, in which case you’d hear a whole lot of people complaining and demanding heads on platters.

    • Howie,

      Those are good points. What you say about ad-supported software is absolutely correct. The folks at Google do know better, and they could have made the whole thing based on encryption, where a content owner can revoke rights, but they based it on simple permissions instead, probably by choice.

      Whether it’s open source, or not, shouldn’t really affect how easy it is to pirate media. MS Windows isn’t open source, but I have complete control of all the same APIs that the folks writing MS Office do, and that’s no help. Security through obfuscation isn’t security at all, and all the open source in the world isn’t going to un-encrypt something that has strong encryption, without the key.

      Theoretically DRM should protect even if a user is root. In reality most of the DRM, at least how it is described here, is beatable through copying: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_rights_management That said, I am a superuser on my Linux PC, and my Windows PC, if being a superuser is all it takes to circumvent Google’s protection, then it can be done there. I do think that Google, technically, know’s better than this. That’s why I suspect that the request came from a content provider: Google, or at least some percentage of the tech folks at Google, know better than this. Some content provider’s employee notices all these things that are enabled by rooting, and makes that stipulation, and the lawyers at Google think “hell yes”, and the tech folks at Google think “meh”, that’s not too bad of a restriction, sure, we will honor that. That doesn’t mean that Google, as an organization, is taking a stand against rooting though. It could mean that, but it can also mean a lot of other things, including the possibility of the “meh” scenario that I made up above. I never worked for Google, but in my 20 years as a developer, I saw patterns like that, many times. You strive for the best technical solution, but in the end, choices that are made end up having more to do with who makes up the organization, and in this case that includes the studio’s reps, than they do with what’s the best technical solution.


  • LAmDroid

    this is a bit off the point in the article, but why must apple product be credited with being the “beginning of times” when it comes to so many things?

    WinMo smartphones were being hacked for admin abilities far before iphone was even concieved by apple. What is it with our generation of tech publications that seem to be deluded that Apple started it all. Im only 28… and I clearly remember the pre-Apple-trend days.. it almost seems like the authors of magazines and tech blogs are either in their early 20’s or their late 40’s

    • Sanefacade

      Because no one in the mainstream remembers that. Things in history are noted for its significance and public association. Apple had a widely publicized controversy with jailbreaking, so much that it caused a change in the definition and application of the DMCA for mobile devices. I’m 25 and I remember hacking WinMo and Blackberry phones, but there wasn’t any grief about it’s legality. Smartphones weren’t nearly as popular in those days because they weren’t nearly as user-friendly among other things, so the average cell phone consumer avoided them. Microsoft nor RIM ever sought, at least publically, court intervention in the hacking of their phone software by their users. It wasn’t worth it. Then came the Apple iPhone with it’s simplified, easy-to-use interface and the mainstream mobile device market jumped all over it. Most of the tech savvy phone users thought that since there were no legal ramifications in bypassing the DRM in their phones before, there shouldn’t be now, including George Hotz. Device hacking stayed under the radar until Apple blew up about jailbreaking…and it caused a significant change in legal and societal views. Therefore, Apple will always historically be associated and credited with the “beginning of times” with device hacking because they popularized it by making it controversial. Just like Sony and hacking gaming consoles.

  • Francis Gabriel

    im a layman here and i respect the knowledge and freedom of opinion here, well expressed and, i would suspect, of value to the development of Android as it gets less ‘green’ in the smartphone OS market.

    what i see, is an opportunity for google to return to its broad demographic digital liberitarianism. i understand google products grow, and products like Open Office grow, precisely because there are voices such as yours (and no doubt even lines of code!) that challenge google to live up up to its promise of staying loyally symbiotic with its users.

    being an linux-bred mac bastard, i have lived the experience of a beach-house feel tech firm going against its market by controlling the way users access and produce content on devices created by and through exclusivity-based software that limits the potential of the device.

    you guys know much more about this subject than i, and i am certain that your views, supported by the ethos of open source, rejecting the strictures and limited functionality of devices that could realise the sort of free user experience that is infinitely preferable. we have a right to insist that there be occasioned a reduction of intrusions by our OS (and almost invariably, given distribution partnerships) our digital lives. the premise almost echoes, in the digital arena, the fundamental Constitutionally-limited role of the government in our public lives. As we begin to work and (for myself at any rate) spend leisure time in the digital as opposed to public spaces, i would propose that we have the same moral conviction in demanding of google that rooting is not only permissable, but incorporated into the user-based ongoing development of the software. this is obviously a leap of faith by google in age of over-insured and under-protected Intellectual Property and the need to securitise and OWN innovation. However, it seems hypocritical that google can cash the cheque of CloudComputing on one hand and bill us or punish us with the other for staying committed to the foundational programming approach that they advocated at the birth of android! it got big because of us and should not use our commercial support as retention with its banks on its liquifiable future value. must all successful computing figures seem to support the anti-trust-ish behaviour that would have surely slowed/bottle-necked the development of their own product?


    • Let’s look at the opportunity here! Cameras are getting better and better, people are picking up video skills, or can find a friend who has them … how about leaving commercial DRM-restricted content behind entirely! Let’s cook our own content, and put it up on the markets DRM-free, with a logo that says as much, so it becomes head-to-head competition between crowd-sourced content that’s ideologically pure and big-studio-produced content that’s polished, market-driven, and locked down-authoritarian. Get tempted, and discover real communication from the creator of the content, often enough, and you are going to get hooked on freedom! Then improve the market or strike out on our own and create meaningful categorizing that covers what people really want to explore, and where anyone can add categories, and others can help refine placement and search, and you have a thousand avenues of real choice! You know what happens next? A thousand avenues get localized to other cultures, added to with stuff our culture doesn’t have, and all of a sudden the whole world is competing with Hollywood with self-produced content! Wahoo!

      Let’s roll!

  • eric

    hummmmm …..being root on my dhd and be able to cook all kinds of rom’s to my fancy VS being able to watch movies sold and distributed with a DRM ….. real hard choice ……. guess i’ll stick to my coll free content provider that i already have , sorry Google , love you but i’m not going that way after basically all the majors turning into assholes

  • Michael H.

    Man, couldn’t care less about renting movies to watch on a freakin’ mobile device. Who does or enjoys that, really? I just watch Blu-rays on a bigger screen.
    All I need is for my Android-tablet to be like a computer, an organizer, a replacement of the laptop, to use next to my PC. It’s not for movies, it’s a computer like someone else said before. So let me use it as one.