Why Don’t We See Many Custom ROMs and Hacks for Windows Phone?

A fellow editor asked the question above and we thought we’d take a look at a few reasons why we don’t really see many custom ROMs or other hacks for Windows Phone.   That’s not to say there aren’t any custom ROMs or hacks… there certainly are some.  It’s just that the amount of hacking and ROM building support is much much less than the likes of the classic Windows Mobile smartphone operating system.

First off, the whole idea of creating custom ROMs and hacks for smartphones really started with Windows Mobile or Pocket PC Phone Edition in 2002.  That’s how the famous XDA-Developers site was founded.  HTC’s “Wallaby” Pocket PC Phone was the first of its kind and was originally released as the “O2 XDA”.  It was the first hint of the modern smartphones we all use today, however it certainly wasn’t perfect.  Things started when users realized that the Windows Mobile operating system was very hackable combined with the fact that there were plenty of issues that really needed to be fixed in order for the phone to be usable.

Back in 2002, Windows Mobile smartphones had the same problems as many of the early Android phones.  Programs would crash occasionally, battery life would suffer significantly if you didn’t manage multi-tasking properly, etc.  Many things could be fixed with registry hacks or custom app add-ons, but the phone still often needed to be hard reset when you did something to mess it up.  Plus, there was the other annoying fact that if your battery died completely, the whole phone would hard reset itself and lose all of your personal data.  By designing custom ROMs that included all of your desired tweaks and hacks, having to hard reset wasn’t so bad because that meant it would be going straight back to your custom state.  In addition to using custom ROMs, I would often include a custom auto-install list on the persistent storage card that would reinstall all of my favorite programs after a hard reset.  I also had built some of my own custom CAB installers that would automatically enter my serial numbers for apps that I’ve bought as well as install my preferred themes and other personal registry edits.  It was a huge amount of work to get everything working well and ease the frustrations of having to do a hard reset.

Fast forward to Microsoft’s mobile smartphone reboot called Windows Phone 7 and we have a much different scenario.  The “need” to fix Microsoft’s latest smartphone operating system has practically disappeared.  Installing various apps no longer runs the risk of making the phone completely unstable like it did in the days of Windows Mobile 10 years ago.  Hard resetting the device is barely ever necessary.   Even personal customizations are less necessary since simply logging in with your social networking accounts and using the things you like automatically customizes the interface for you with little effort.  It actually customizes itself every day to keep the “boringness factor” very low.  Hardly ever getting bored with the device as it is means there’s no need for you to manually do anything about it.

However, one of the original necessities of custom hacks designed to fix things still occasionally pops-up.   For example, Windows Phone 7.5 introduced a bug in the email program which would not quote the original message when forwarding an email from an Exchange 2003 account.  That was pretty annoying, and it was impossible for the hacker community to do anything about it because of the other big reason that Windows Phone doesn’t have many custom ROMs… its code is very locked-down.

Unlike Windows Mobile of the previous decade, Windows Phone was not designed for the user community to easily fix or hack or modify.  Of course, that contributes to the lack of custom ROM availability, but it also puts the responsibility squarely on Microsoft’s shoulders to get the software done right.

There are plenty of pros and cons to this approach, but the pros tend to out-weigh the cons.  The vast majority of smartphone users really don’t want to spend time learning how to hack their phone’s code and write programs to customize the device to make it easier to use.  Most people just want a phone that does what it’s supposed to do and does it well.  Hence, Microsoft’s attempt at removing the need for custom ROMs and hacks really is something that one should expect would help lead to its success.

However, there is a very vocal minority who really love to customize their smartphone software and create their own added value.  Windows Phone 8 is built on a new core which could potentially bring a much higher level of customization options.  Do you think we’ll see a large increase in custom ROM and hack availability when Windows Phone 8 is available?

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About The Author
Adam Z. Lein
Adam has had interests in combining technology with art since his first use of a Koala pad on an Apple computer. He currently has a day job as a graphic designer, photographer, systems administrator and web developer at a small design firm in Westchester, NY. His love of technology extends to software development companies who have often implemented his ideas for usability and feature enhancements. Mobile computing has become a necessity for Adam since his first Uniden UniPro PC100 in 1998. He has been reviewing and writing about smartphones for Pocketnow.com since they first appeared on the market in 2002. Read more about Adam Lein!