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I’ve been itching to buy a new phone for some months now. My current phone – a Galaxy SII – has been “showing its age”, by which I mean it is three versions behind the current up-to-date version of the Android system, and there are lots of new phones on the market now. I’ve had the thing since the summer of 2011, and for the first time that I can remember I’ve gone out of contract with my mobile network, and am now on a greatly reduced monthly tariff that isn’t paying for a new handset. It’s all part of the new business economy drive, and even more frustrating is that my wife (who is a late adopter of tech for the most part) now has a newer phone that I do. Crushing the male pride of a part-time geek, that.

So it’s been very interesting for me in the last few weeks to see news of CyanogenMod’s easy installation app being released in the wild. Let’s just explain that last sentence…

A phone comes with an operating system. In the case of iPhones it’s iOS, Windows Phones, erm, Windows Phone OS, and Android phones… well, it’s Android.

But unlike the first two, Android (whilst “owned” and produced by Google) is run as an open source project – that is, some of the code that Google produces to make Android is released into the public domain so that anyone with the mind to can get a hold of it. Being open source means that the handset manufacturers often bugger around with it – adding features and functionality above and beyond Apps that can differentiate their handsets from their competitors (an issue that the iOS world doesn’t have directly because Apple are the only producers of iPhones, and that the Windows Phone world doesn’t have to the same extent because Microsoft have been quite proscriptive about how their phones can be built).

The net result of all of that is that often the “features” of these customisations can be their weaknesses (Samsung, in my humble opinion, being particularly dreadful and writing software – more on that later), and also that these customisations can lead to big delays in the release of updates to the underlying Android OS on particular phones – the last update available to the SII was about eight months after it had been released by Google. Oh – and I’ve not even mentioned the stuff that the networks do to the OS as well…

Manufacturers also have a vested interest in shipping new phones, so they also tend to stop releasing updates for their models after a period of time; the most up to date Samsung OS for the SII is version 4.1; Google recently released version 4.4.

It is at this point we enter the world of Android “modding”. If the software is open source and available to anyone, then if there is enough interest then talented enthusiasts will enter the fray and start doing their own thing. CyanogenMod is an open source project that creates up-to-date, “vanilla” versions of Android for a wide range of devices. But up until recently you needed to be able to penetrate a world of strange language and scary warnings – understanding how to use tools like “Odin” to “root” your handset, all the while invalidating one’s warranty and running the risk of “bricking” (literally – breaking your phone so it become no more than an expensive brick).

CyanogenMod Installer (see http://www.cyanogenmod.org/) cuts through most of that; you install a tiny app on your phone (one of maybe two-dozen that are supported), run it; connect your phone to your PC with a USB cable; run an installer app on the PC; cross your fingers, and then wake up to a shiny new phone.

Because, let’s be frank, whilst screen pixel density and camera megapixels are all well and good, smartphones are all about the software these days. Cyanogenmod has just extended the life of my SII. And because I’m now running a modified version of Android (rather than a “stock” one from the manufacturer) I’ll continue to get software updates for some time to come.

It wasn’t completely plain sailing; I needed to get my hands on another PC. As mentioned before, Samsung’s ability to write or commission software is grotty in my experience (from some of the additions to the Android platform to the SmartTV we have to the truly appalling “Kies” synchronisation software for PCs). The USB drivers for their phones to enable them to connect to a PC are a particular low point, and I just couldn’t get it to work on my standard desktop PC at home. Running it on a laptop that had never had its ports darkened by my phone before seemed to work fine, though.

Whilst now a lot, lot less geeky that it was before the Installer came along, modding one’s phone is still a somewhat nerdy thing to do. But, maybe, given the quality of the end product, this might turn into the Open Source operating system for the masses that Linux promised by could never quite deliver upon?

One thought on “What Linux could have been

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