Confessions of a former “flash-aholic”
A little while ago, I powered up my first smartphone for the first time in a very long time. It’s the infamous and now forgotten Optimus 2X. It’s quite old and frankly ancient by mobile tech standards- it was first released back in 2010 and I’ve had mine since 2011. But there’s something about my three years of using the device that will stay with me forever.
Those were the days when Android was just beginning to become the global juggernaut that it is today. I was a tech enthusiast right in the thick of the smartphone revolution- my enthusiast friends and I felt like pioneers, trailblazers even. When I bought my phone it ran a terribly clunky LG UI on top of Android 2.2.2 Froyo. But I hadn’t bought the phone to just pick up and use the clumsily put together stock software. I’d bought my phone with the intention of rooting and getting in on the custom ROM scene: the bleeding edge of technology, the machete made by Google and wielded by Android enthusiasts. We perused the developer forums, scouring them for ROMs to flash and apps to test out. We sideloaded with glee, all the different tidbits devs and community members managed to pry out of their specific OEM offerings, creating a veritable patchwork of software experiences, to be tweaked to our hearts’ content, to be changed as per our whims, and up to the limits of our imagination. That’s why I didn’t wait even two hours before I voided the warranty on my device.
It was a time of nascent developments, when manufacturers were just beginning to grasp the importance of a great mobile UX, and seemed either unable or unwilling to invest in the time or money to create a great experience. Devices often bore the yoke of heavy UIs –I won’t call them skins– and didn’t perform very well. Rooting and going the custom ROM route seemed like a way to free these devices from the shackles of oppressive stock software and help them realize their true potential.
Of course looking back at that era carries the risk of romanticizing these things. There was and still is a great risk to modifying/flashing things onto your rooted devices. I’ve had to deal with my fair share of bootloops and soft bricks, and resurrecting a device from that state feels like the tech equivalent of resuscitating someone with a defibrillator. It’s high risk, but the thing is: it felt like the greatest reward.
As time went on, we went from the early days of Froyo, to Gingerbread, to the days of Ice Cream Sandwich and beyond, the time when Android began to “come of age” so to speak. I moved on to a new phone, as age finally caught up to my old device. I had run from the shackles of planned obsolescence for the longest time but it was time to let go. And almost immediately I was pushed to the other end of the spectrum – from a “flash-aholic” Android enthusiast to an “end user”. The surprising part is, I decided to stay that way.
Beyond the joy of having a taste of the latest software, the most important reason I went the custom ROM way was the fact that my flagship phone performed poorly with its stock software. It lagged heavily despite being “the first smartphone with a dual core processor”. The battery life was terrible, even by Android standards at the time. The stock software was terrible, but enthusiasts and developers were creating ROMs and patching up the issues that plagued the software. To me it felt like a picking up a diamond in the rough and giving it a polish to unleash the potential of the hardware that lay within.
But technology develops extremely quickly, and now it’s come to the point that even a low tier device has a quad-core processor and one or two gigabytes of RAM, a far cry from the dual core NVidia Tegra 2 backed up by 512 MB. Devices are much more powerful. Android has become progressively more powerful, more beautiful, and it packs more features. In the wake of this development, it seemed to me like there is no need to go through all the hoops just to unleash a device’s potential. These days, performance is good enough.
There have been advancements on the software side as well. Android has moved on from being a skeuomorphic OS with 3D elements and gradients, to a more minimal and more mobile friendly aesthetic. It even went through a TRON like look in the 4.x era that now seems like a rebellious teenager phase, before coming to the “modern” Material Design, which kind of seems like a coming of age. As the core OS changed and evolved, so have the user experiences provided by the various OEMs. While some like Samsung stick to a core aesthetic, others like HTC and Motorola have embraced the stock Android look and feel. LG has also improved; its current UI is much better than the one on my Optimus 2X, but I’d still describe it as, well, “marshmallowy”. Overall, there’s been a tremendous improvement, and there aren’t any devices being released with huge software flaws or performance issues (there’s the whole Lollipop fiasco but that was fixed relatively quickly).
Thinking about it, I feel lazy in the comfort of the “Stock ROM”. It’s not like being in on the latest thing excites me. Every time I sideloaded an app in beta, every time I flashed a new ROM onto my device, I felt like I was helping out the community. I felt like I was doing my bit towards the cause, helping the overall experience get better, for myself and the rest of us. Now that it’s at a level of being good enough, it feels like it’s not a thing that needs doing anymore. My ROM flashing days may very well be behind me.
It’s not that this isn’t needed anymore. There are still avenues to be explored, limits to be pushed. It’s just not in the phones or tablets anymore. The unexplored frontiers of technology are infinite in their expanse. What I’m trying to say is, the Android enthusiast in me wants something new. Maybe the answer lay in Android Wear? Of course, there are Custom ROMs for it. Maybe I should give it a try- once I get my hands on a device. What if the answer lies in something else entirely? I remember the thrill and excitement of the early days when rooting and flashing lent a kind of newness and uniqueness to the smartphone experience.
The Android platform has evolved, and matured. The thing is, sometimes I fear it may have gone stale. Android 5 brought Material Design, but it feels more like a fresh coat of paint rather than something really dramatically different to me. I want something to excite me, an experience that brings back the memories of the early days as a tech enthusiast. It’ll need something really new and great, or it will need something really terrible with potential. Of course, it requires a level of risk taking that can’t be seen any more in the smartphone space.
I spend a lot of time trying to think of the next big jump in technology, the next revolution I can jump onto. It’s just a matter of looking at what exists and connecting the dots. I’ve gone so far on this path, so far up this hill that I feel like maybe I need to start anew on something else. To get the feeling of being a pioneer again.