The Not-So Shady World of Cooked Smartphone ROMs

I watched him enter the smoke-filled room and head to the back booth where I’d been waiting. I knew from the moment I saw him that he was my supplier, as he looked as I’d expected. The fedora was slung low over his face, so the scar running across his chin was the only part of his face that was visible. He looked around and saw me, ambled over and slid across from me.

“No names. I’ve got the ROM you wanted.” He gauged my reaction and knew he had me hooked.

“Follow the instructions I have included with the ROM exactly, or you may BRICK YOUR PHONE.”

He slid the tiny package across the table, silently stood and left the seamy dive as fast as he had arrived. The entire transaction took less than a minute. I made a conscious effort to slow my rapid breathing. I had the ROM! With a little bit of effort I would soon have the equivalent of a brand new phone, with features that owners of the same handset could only dream about. I would be careful applying this new ROM that had been cooked in some secret location by very smart people willing to give me what I needed. No OEM nor carrier would keep my from having the phone I wanted, thanks to these nameless white hat hackers churning ROMs out in the middle of the night.

Years ago, getting a cooked ROM may have happened like the scene above, but no longer. The ability to replace a smartphone ROM with a totally different set of software has gone mainstream, and anyone can do it. The phone ROM (read-only memory) is the software installed by the OEM in the firmware of the phone; it consists of the operating system and all the software that makes the hardware work as intended. It is the brains of the phone and makes the phone what it is; it is what sets one handset apart from other models.

Back when Windows Mobile (s msft) was running most high-end smartphones, cooked ROMs were born. Owners had come to realize that OS updates would be few and far between (if at all), and savvy folks enviously watched new phone models hit the market with new features and better performance. Some owners with technical backgrounds started producing their own ROMs that incorporated versions of the OS more current than what their now-dated phone used. They created their own OS update, and shared it with other owners who were in the same situation. It was all done very quietly on private online forums as it technically violated the license agreements of the phone software, and the terms of service of the phone carrier, too.

This didn’t have a negative impact on phone sales, so the OEMs and carriers turned a blind eye to the practice. Only a few people were doing it, and as no money was changing hands, it continued quietly in the background for years. Then Android (s goog) came along, and the ROM-cooking hobby took off. Android is the perfect platform for these enthusiasts to tinker with; it’s open source. Handset manufacturers must release the source code for their ROMs as a result, and that opened the door for a much bigger group of tech-savvy folks to experiment.

Google has updated Android at such a rapid pace that buyers of hot phone models saw newer (and better) versions of the OS released just weeks after their phone hit the market, and feature envy ramped up to high levels. This drove ROM makers to speed up the process of producing them for nearly every Android phone on the market. These cooked ROMs added new versions of Android to the phone, while keeping the best features of the original ROM the OEM shipped on the handset. In some cases, the ROM chefs were able to squash bugs affecting shipping phones, and word spread quickly online that not only can phone X have the latest OS, but work better than the original, too.

The ROM cookers have gotten so good at churning out these “updates,” that often a new ROM will appear shortly after Google releases a new Android version to developers, long before it is publicly available. Word spreads in the online smartphone enthusiast community, and folks flock to download it. These ROM gurus have created software tools that make wiping a phone and applying the cooked ROM so easy that even newbies can tackle it with comfort, and this (coupled with high Android phone sales) has seen the practice explode.

A search of the web will show multiple ROM versions available for just about every Android handset on the market. “Shoppers” are able to pick and choose the ROM “brand” they want to use, and a lot of conversation on online communities deals with which ROM has which features. These ROMs are all free, and the tools used to apply them make it straightforward to roll back to the original software should things not work as planned. This leads many to experiment with ROMs just to see if they like the new features. Essentially, a self-update ecosystem has evolved, and thousands are taking part.

The online ecosystem for ROM delivery and support has become so sophisticated that those without any technical knowledge are participating. The enthusiast web sites that handle these ROMs are bustling centers of activity. One has even developed a sophisticated automated process that allows members to cook ROMs that include desired features. The visitor to this ROM kitchen selects desired features from the menu, then a utility cooks a custom ROM tailored to the member’s selections.

Would I recommend applying a custom ROM to most Android phone owners? Probably not, as it isn’t without risk. It voids the phone’s warranty should the OEM and carrier discover its software has been replaced with a cooked ROM. Modified phones can’t receive OEM software updates, so once you commit to a street ROM you’re dependent on the creator for updates. Applying a cooked ROM wipes the phone completely, and if that process doesn’t work as intended, it can leave the phone inoperable. That’s known as bricking the phone, as it makes the phone useless. There’s nowhere to turn when that happens, as the carrier and the OEM aren’t helpful when they discover you’ve trashed your phone doing something unsupported.

I almost bricked my phone recently due to a corrupt ROM file I applied. I tried my first custom ROM as research for this article (sure that’s why I did it), and my phone worked better than it did originally. My problem occurred when I was flashing the original phone ROM to get it back to OEM condition. The backup ROM I’d created was apparently corrupt, and it left my phone totally unusable. It was looking like my phone was dead, never to return to working condition. I fussed with it for hours and was eventually able to apply a new copy of the ROM to get my phone back. Sure there are benefits that appeal to many, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

Image credit: Flickr user garryknight

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