Giving old gadgets, new life (or how to interrupt planned obsolescence)
Google recently announced that it would not be releasing a Google Android 4.0 software update for the Nexus One smartphone, because less than 20 months after release, it’s apparently “too old.” Instead, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich will focus on its newer flagship phones. First it will launch first on the new Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone and Google will push an update to the Samsung Nexus S soon after.
It’s kind of a shame to see Google abandoning support for a phone in such a short period. After all, if you bought a Nexus One in the US the day it came out, you might still be under contract with your wireless carrier.
But as blogger Michael Degusta shows with a rather informative (if incomplete) chart, the Nexus One has received fast and reliable software updates more regularly than any other Android device ever released. Most Motorola, Samsung, and HTC smartphone owners have things much worse.
Here’s the thing though: I don’t really care as much as I used to. Because over the past few years something really amazing has happened. We’ve seen independent developers breathe new life into old gadgets time and time again thanks to unofficial software updates.
Old hardware, new software
For years, one of the rallying cries for Linux-based operating systems is that they can give new life to older computers. Have a machine that shipped with Windows 95, but which doesn’t have the hardware to support Windows 98 (or Windows XP, or Windows 7)? No problem, just install Ubuntu, or something even simpler such as Tiny Core Linux or Puppy.
But that doesn’t just apply to older Windows computers. More than a decade ago HP released a line of mobile devices under the Jornada name. They ran Windows CE, had (barely) touch-typable keyboards, touchscreen displays, and were small enough to fold up and fit in your pocket.
Unfortunately they were also really expensive, and as a struggling student I couldn’t really afford one… until a few years later when you could find a used Jornada 720 for sale on eBay for under $200. I picked up a couple of these little devices and was thrilled with their mobility. They were great for taking notes on the go in my day job as a reporter.
What they weren’t great for was surfing the web — they were stuck with an outdated mobile version of Internet Explorer which couldn’t handle mdoern (even at the time) websites. At the time there weren’t many good alternative web browsers for Windows CE — so I turned to the world of Linux and discovered Jlime.
Jlime is a custom version of Linux designed to run on older handheld devices that were originally built to run Windows CE. That includes the HP Jornada line as well as older NEC MobilePro devices and a few other products. This allows you to install third party apps including alternate web browsers, text editors, and games.
When I was testing JLime in 2004 or so, I wasn’t really that impressed with the level of performance I was getting from the Jornada, but the project has come a long way since then — and more importantly, Jlime has been offering users with a way to get more out of their aging devices for the better part of a decade — long after HP and Microsoft stopped supporting the platform.
Here’s a video from a few years ago showing an HP Jornada 720 running Duke Nukem 3D:
Because Linux is based on open source software, independent developers can add features — or strip features. They can build Linux-based software that can run on supercomputers, but they can also squeeze powerful new software onto older devices with slower hardware — often allowing it to perform better than it did with the original hardware.
Sometimes that means finding ways to shoehorn Linux onto a 10-year-old HP Jornada. Sometimes it means replacing the operating system that came with an under-supported device just a year or two ago.
The Toshiba AC100 is a thin and light laptop-style computer which has a 1 GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core processor, a 10 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel display, and Google Android operating system. Toshiba hasn’t done a great job of supporting the product since it was launched in 2010 — but users that want to can install Ubuntu Linux to transform the device from an Android-based computer (which is limited by its lack of a touchscreen) into one that can run thousands of Ubuntu applications.
Android enters the scene
Sometimes Android is the solution rather than the problem though. Google’s Android operating system is designed to run on phones and tablets — and while Google works on major updates to the operating behind closed doors, the company generally (but not always) releases the source code once its ready to ship a major update.
Independent developers have been grabbing code from the Android Open Source Project for the last few years, and making it their own by creating custom versions of Android (or “custom ROMs”) which can run on current or older phones or tablets. Often these custom ROMs offer advanced features that may not have come with your device, including tighter control over the display, sound, notifications, or applications on a device.
But one of the most impressive things we’ve seen with custom ROMs is that if Samsung, HTC, Motorola, or any other company decides not to offer software updates for your phone or tablet, there’s a good chance that you can find a custom ROM that will let you run the latest software anyway.
For some people this may not seem that important. After all, most Android apps are designed to run on older phones. So if you bought a phone running Android 2.1 a few years ago and it’s still running Android 2.1 today, then odds are that it will be able to run many of the latest games, web browsers, and other utilities released into the Android Market today.
But what about tomorrow? Eventually developers will stop supporting older versions of Android… and if the manufacturer of your device doesn’t offer an update, then you might feel the need to toss it aside and buy something new.
The custom ROM development community is making it possible to hold onto those older devices longer though — and that’s better for the environment and for your pocketbook than chucking older gadgets in the trash (or even recycling them) when they’re past their prime.
Phone makers, wireless carriers, and other interested parties want you to buy a new phone every few years because that’s how they make money. And odds are that if you’re reading this site, at some point you’re going to lust for a device with a faster processor, higher resolution display, or some other killer feature.
But it’s nice living in a world where you get to decide when your old device isn’t good enough anymore instead of the company that sold it to you.
My Nexus One
For about 18 months I was running the stock Android operating system on my Nexus One phone. Every time Google pushed out an update, I was among the first to get it, and this made me happy. I could check out the new features as soon as they became available and be certain that I was getting the latest security updates as well.
I also root my phone… not necessarily because I need to play around with hidden aspects of the file system or change my boot logo or make other deep changes. I’ve been rooting my phone since last year because most phones running Android 2.3 offer no way to take screenshots without rooting your phone or plugging it into a computer and running the Android Software Developer Kit tools.
As a mobile tech blogger, I regularly want to snap a picture of my phone’s screen and sometimes I want to do that when I’m not near a computer. So I root.
Every time Google pushed out an update though, it removed my root access and I often had to find a new method for rooting the phone because older tools may have stopped working.
A few months ago I got tired of playing this game and when Google pushed out a new update, rather than spending hours or days looking for a way to root the phone, I decided to unlock the bootloader and install CyanogenMod 7.1.
CyanogenMod is one of the most popular custom ROMs for Android devices. In fact, you can even run CyanogenMod on some devices that didn’t initially ship with Android at all such as the HTC HD2 Windows Mobile phone, or the HP TouchPad webOS tablet.
After installing CyanogenMod on my Nexus One, I noticed that it felt faster, had more free space for apps, and offered more customization options. I’d been starting to think it was almost time to replace my phone… up until the moment I installed CyanogenMod.
Now it feels like a new device. It doesn’t have the fastest processor or the most storage. But it runs virtually every app I can throw at it, and never feels slow. I also know that there’s a very active team of developers behind CyanogenMod, so even though Google won’t be offering major Android updates for the phone, I suspect that future versions of CyanogenMod will bring Android 4.0 and other updates to my aging phone one day.
HP introduced the TouchPad tablet in July, 2011. The company discontinued the tablet in August, after just a month and a half on the market.
The TouchPad was the first and only tablet to ship with the webOS operating system. While HP says it’s not pulling out of the webOS business (yet), the company no longer makes webOS phones or tablets. That makes the future of the TouchPad look pretty uncertain.
HP did manage to sell quite a few TouchPads after marking down the base price from $499 to $99 in order to clear out inventory, and it’s likely that there are at least a million TouchPad tablets in the wild today.
True to word, so far HP has kept up its promise to continue supporting the tablet. The company has released two software updates for webOS 3.0 since launching the device, improving performance and offering new features.
But even if HP pulls the plug on webOS altogether, the TouchPad has a future thanks to the folks at CyanogenMod.
A group of developers has been working hard to port Google Android to run on HP’s tablet, and two alpha versions have already been released. Anyone with an HP TouchPad can download and install Android on the tablet today thanks to CyanogenMod.
The software is still a little rough around the edges, and many users have experienced problems with the WiFi connection or with the tablet shutting off unexpectedly or refusing to resume from sleep without a reboot. But work is continuing to make Android on the TouchPad more stable.
There are already benefits to running the buggy Android build on the TouchPad though. When you install Android you’re no longer limited to the 10,000 or so apps available for webOS. You can choose from hundreds of thousands of apps designed to run on Android — most work just fine on the TouchPad.
The tablet also feels faster (if less stable) and generally more responsive when running Android. Best of all, when you load CyanogenMod you get a dual boot system, so you can always revert to webOS if you prefer the original software — and if HP continues to support it.
There’s also an active homebrew software community for webOS, so I suspect that if HP ever does drop the ball, there will be a community of interested folks willing to keep the platform alive indefinitely.
Even if CyanogenMod disbands, or Google stops releasing source code for Android, I think the cat is out of the bag. When I got frustrated with my HP Jornada 7 years ago there weren’t many options available for making it more useful. If the same thing had happened with a device a few years earlier, there would have been even fewer options.
Today, there are a number of great solutions available for end users looking to squeeze more life out of their aging gadgets. And that’s just for consumers… folks with coding skills are constantly building their own custom solutions on top of the work done by others — and sometimes they’re kind enough to release the tools for the rest of us to use.
Google could stop developing Android tomorrow, but there would probably still be independent developers working to add features and improve the experience. In fact, I suspect the independent development community would become even more prolific if Google stepped back.
Unlike open source operating systems that are developed with community involvement, new versions of Android are currently produced behind closed doors before Google releases them to the public. That provides a disincentive for anyone (with the possible exception of the developers at Amazon who developed the software for the Kindle Fire) to make any really big changes — since they might not work with the next version of Android, and they almost certainly won’t be incorporated.
So while the Android development community is strong today, I suspect it would be even stronger if Google loosened its grip on the operating system.
If you hold onto a device long enough, odds are the battery will die, the memory will give out, or something else will fail. But it may happen long before you stop finding useful software for your mobile device. Once upon a time it was common for people to wear their devices into the ground because they were too expensive to replace regularly, or because the pace of technological advancement was so slow.
Now we can wear them into ground for different reasons: because the hardware is good enough to offer a valuable experience for years to come, as long as there’s a community of developers willing to support the product… and there probably is.