There is a storm of controversy brewing in the custom ROM development community as to whether to support Samsung’s latest, greatest Galaxy S IV phone.
Whatever the outcome, Samsung’s reputation with the hardcore hacking community and its business practices have been dragged through the mud, not that any consumer would care.
The goals for custom ROM development on Android are as varied as those who like to modify their cars or decorate their houses. The goal is to make it better, but better is different to each and every team. One, which I hesitate to name, is a blatant iPhone rip-off, replacing all the icons and many notifications with an iOS theme. Many others are aimed at providing a vanilla Android experience, stripping all the custom layers (such as Samsung Touchwiz, HTC Sense and Sony Timescape) and leaving it much faster, leaner and often with better battery life now that the unnecessary frills have been removed.
How much faster? A first generation Galaxy Note with Paranoid Android is noticeably faster and more responsive than a Galaxy Note II despite having half the processing power.
Even for those without the desire for customisation and modification, custom ROMs have traditionally provided old and abandoned phones with an upgrade path to the latest versions of Android. Even the 2009-era HTC Hero which was launched with Android 1.5 Cupcake has active development for the latest version of Jellybean. No, it is not quite there yet and the lack of any meaningful GPU is a challenge, but the idea that you can boot up an ancient phone into the latest version of Android Jellybean while some much newer phones are still stuck on Ice Cream Sandwich brings a smug smile to one’s face.
By far the largest and most active community is CyanogenMod.
It all started off a few days before Mobile World Congress. Cyanogen developer Daniel “Codeworkx” Hillenbrand gave a scathing interview about how he was abandoning work on Samsung devices because of lack of support and how without source code, it would be impossible to fix the bugs in the CyanogenMod Galaxy S III ROM.
When Samsung launched the Galaxy S II, it promised support and devices for the CyanogenMod community and it hired one of CyanogenMod’s founders. Steve Kondik to work for it.
Codeworkx said that while the devices arrived, not a single line of code was handed over, calling it all just a PR stunt.
What code was available in the community was woefully outdated. He also noted that nVidia’s Tegra platform was almost as bad and only TI OMAP and Qualcomm Snapdragon readily provided the source code and support that was needed to create a proper custom build.
Fast forward to 19 March in the wake of the launch of the Galaxy S IV and Team Hacksung has made an announcement that it would not develop for the new device.
XpLoDWilD said, “Nobody at Team Hacksung (the team behind Galaxy S2, Note, S3, Note2, G Tabs... official CM ports) plans to buy it, neither develop for it. There are two variants which will be a pain to maintain, [and] the bugs we have on the S3 will probably be there on S4, too (camera), and we all know Samsung ability to release sources while staying in line with mainline. Yes Qualcomm releases sources, but Exynos sources we had were far from [working on] actual Galaxy products. I'm pretty sure the same will happen for this one. That's a uniform "no" from us.”
Other posts have gone on to accusing Samsung of violating the GPL (General Public Licence, the open software licence that most open source software, including Android, is under) which allows for free use of the software as long as any derivative work (in this case Samsung improvements) is also made open and free. Releasing source code which does not actually work is bad form, regardless of the motive.
Cyanogen, for its part, issued a statement that it had no formal stance regarding development for the S IV.
With the relationship between Samsung and the Cyanogen community hitting rock bottom, it is interesting to see what the other vendors are doing. In 2011 HTC announced it was going to stop locking down its phone’s bootloaders to open them up to the community. More recently, probably under pressure from carriers, it has locked down its phones again, making custom ROMs impossible to develop. As a gesture it has announced it would be selling unlocked versions of the HTC One flagship for developers but for many that is a moot point. What is the point of developing for a phone that does not have any installed base as the identically looking phones the rest of us can buy are all locked down?
The rising stars are Sony and LG, both of whom are providing the support and the drivers needed to create a proper custom ROM. LG has the added prestige of being the maker of the current Nexus 4 pure Google phone and thus the first to get the latest version of Android when it comes out. But will that community support actually translate into sales of devices beyond the immediate circle of hardcore geeks?
Ultimately it may not matter much. Samsung will sell a tonne of Galaxy S IV devices regardless and only a handful of their owners will even know what they are missing.