Transformer Prime buyers believe unlocked bootloader is an inalienable right

Summary:Updated: The ASUS Transformer Prime has an encrypted locked bootloader, and buyers are campaigning the company to unlock it. ASUS responds with an unlocker, and blames Google.

Updated: There is an interesting situation playing out in the Android world as buyers of the ASUS Transformer Prime have discovered that the company has pulled a fast one on them. The Transformer Prime is the new tablet from ASUS that has the unique laptop dock available that makes the device the tablet to beat. What has buyers riled up is the discovery that the the Transformer Prime is shipping with not only a locked bootloader, it's also encrypted making it practically impossible to load custom ROMs. Buyers have started an online campaign to make ASUS unlock the bootloader to open it up to homebrew modifications.

I have been following this situation since it developed, as I really like the Transformer Prime. It's not clear why ASUS chose to lock down the tablet, but it is clear that Android enthusiasts are upset over the decision. The fact that ASUS didn't indicate this would be the case in advance has fanned the flames of discontent, as buyers didn't discover until after they bought the Transformer Prime that it was locked down.

The online discussion over this turn of events makes it clear that the enthusiasts picking up this tablet believe it is their right to modify the device if they desire. Yes, rooting Android devices and installing third party ROMs violates the warranty of the gadget, but these buyers demand the ability to do so if they want. It leads to an interesting debate, should Android devices be hackable because the OS is "open", or do OEMs have the right to lock them down?

This is not the first device to ship with a locked bootloader, nearly every OEM has done this with one phone or another in the past. The enthusiast community always rallies, and most OEMs have stopped the practice of locking down the bootloaders. It has become a kind of "we don't support your modding but we won't prevent it" truce between the community and the OEMs.

What makes the situation with the Transformer Prime so interesting is that some buyers feel that since they didn't know prior to the purchase that the device was locked, they were fooled into making the purchase. An unlocked device is their "right", and since they were "tricked" into the purchase they should be able to return the tablet. This is where it gets sticky, since technically hacking the device violates the EULA or equivalent. Is ASUS denying buyer's rights by shutting down the ability to hack it?

I have been putting custom ROMs on my Android phones for years, and appreciate the ability to do so. I'm not sure I would agree that all Android devices should be open if the OEM chooses not to do so, however. My approach has been if a particular phone is locked and I want to hack it, then I don't buy it. I don't believe forcing the OEM to make it unlocked is necessarily the way to go. It is an interesting dilemma indeed.

What do you think, should OEMs be forced to make Android devices with unlocked bootloaders, or should we let the open market dictate this? Leave a comment with your thoughts about unlocked bootloaders.

Update: ASUS has posted on its Facebook page that it will release an unlock tool for the Transformer Prime. The company blames the Google DRM for video rentals for the decision to lock the bootloader, and point out that anyone unlocking the Prime will not be able to use Google's video rental service.

Regarding the bootloader, the reason we chose to lock it is due to content providers' requirement for DRM client devices to be as secure as possible. ASUS supports Google DRM in order to provide users with a high quality video rental experience. Also, based on our experience, users who choose to root their devices risk breaking the system completely. However, we know there is demand in the modding community to have an unlocked bootloader. Therefore, ASUS is developing an unlock tool for that community. Please do note that if you choose to unlock your device, the ASUS warranty will be void, and Google video rental will also be unavailable because the device will be no longer protected by security mechanism.

Last year Google shut down the ability to use the video streaming service for Android devices that had been rooted. This is a further indication that those who root their Android phones or tablets may face the loss of DRM-protected Google services in the future.

See also:

Topics: Tablets, Android, Google, Hardware, Laptops, Lenovo, Mobile OS, Samsung, Security

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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