These Are Not the Droids You’re Looking For

BY: Victor Reyes Espinoza

In countries such as Venezuela where resources are scarce, modern phones are inaccessibly priced and older phones are more attainable. However, most popular apps require the use of a recent Android version to which these older models may not have been updated. Independent Android developers create custom ROMs that allow users around the world to maximize the usability, longevity, and personality of their device.

[LineageOS Boot Sound] 

The sound you just heard is the boot up sound of LineageOS, a custom Android operating system. LineageOS is the most popular flavor of a variety of community created custom Android-based operating systems, or custom ROMs. 

In places throughout the world where resources are scarce, Android phones dominate the market. Through participation in developer forums, some users choose to use a custom ROM which allows them to reaffirm their sense of ownership of their device, extend their personal aesthetic to their phone, and reclaim valuable storage space on their device. 

Custom ROMs are developed by independent developers who endeavor to create a version of Android that best fits their needs. All ROMs build upon the same Android Open Source Project code that manufacturers, like LG and Samsung, modify to add their device specific features.

Using a custom rom can be seen as contrary to conventional beliefs of ownership. Those who choose to “root” their android phone to gain administrative privileges and install a custom OS, reaffirm their ownership of their phone. They reclaim their right to modify their phone however they’d like. In doing so, they reject the usual agreement between user and manufacturer. This agreement states that the user will use the device as the manufacturer intended and that the manufacturer will provide software support and updates for the lifetime of the device. Of course, this lifetime has been pre-determined by the manufacturer.

[LG Boot Up Sound]

For example, the Samsung S7 last was updated by Samsung to Android 8, but developers have continued to support it through custom ROMs that run on Android version 11. To users in places like Venezuela , where the most recent flagship is not available or even affordable, custom ROMs provide a way to bring older devices back to life [1]. Many apps require a recent Android version to run, and if the manufacturer has abandoned the device, then it effectively becomes a paperweight. However, custom ROMs allow users to run the latest version of Android and increase the longevity and usability of devices.

Most custom OSs emphasize the enhanced level of customization they provide over standard Android. They boast the ability to run custom themes on the phone which replace everything from status bar icons, notification icons, sounds, the notification menu, and even the settings page on the phone. These custom themes provide great flexibility and opportunity for personal expression. Through modification, the slate slab, complete with a black mirror and corporate interior becomes something personal and affectionate. The customized device now serves to constantly reaffirm the user that they are, in fact, using their phone. 

This modification for the sake of aesthetics appears similar to the ethos of low riding, [car revs] 

where members of a club modify their cars to fit their grandiose aesthetic at the expense of so-called “responsible” consumption and automotive performance. In some cases these modifications seem to contradict a core practice of the car modifying community: performance tuning. But finding that right combination of personalization and performance is what makes a lowrider or a custom ROM stand out. In fact, Android hackers have even co-opted some language from cars to describe their ROMs. For instance, a ROM containing device-specific performance tunings for faster performance and longer battery life is typically referred to as “supercharged”. A developer will find themselves inundated with compliments if their ROM is seen as highly aesthetically pleasing out-of-the-gate, highly customizable, and highly tuned for performance.

Modification does not only disrupt the expected relation between user and phone, but also touches upon the theme of resistance against the colonization of land and extraction of resources. In the case of custom ROMs, the space being protected is the device memory. Popular custom ROMs include a feature called “debloating.” This means that the preinstalled applications by the manufacturer (such as: facebook, whatsapp, chrome) have been removed to save device storage space. This reclamation of space against an encroaching corporate entity who views the space as a potential for additional extraction of profit has real world parallels. In Colombia, community members of La Toma in Southwest Colombia actively resist against the diversion of the river that maintains their livelihood. Custom ROM developers engage in a microcosm of this worldwide conflict. They reassert their autonomy. By reclaiming the ROMm they declare the device’s memory as their own.

[Los Angeles Ambiance] 

I was an active member of XDA Developers throughout my high school career. As a low income family in LA, my family could only afford budget level phones, meaning I quickly grew frustrated at the slowness of my phone when compared to the newest iPhones. Driven to at least match the performance of others’ phones, I researched how to make my phone faster and discovered custom ROMs. I then spent hours a day learning more about how to make the phone faster, leaner, and cooler looking. I contributed to developer threads and provided debugging help by downloading the latest build of the ROM in the morning and trying it out during the school day. Through a lot of tweaking, I was able to set up my phone to achieve the same performance as the latest iPhone while still lasting the whole school day. 

Recently, custom ROMs have decreased in popularity. custom ROM developers have had to fight against manufacturers who have placed increasingly intricate security mechanisms on their devices. Only a few manufacturers have welcomed developers with open hands, notably Google and LG. But these invitations have been short-lived as they also added increased security and made installing custom ROM difficult. Furthermore, the Android Open Source Project has progressed in the last 6 years, meaning that much of the performance and customizability woes that drew users to custom ROMs have been included in the main operating system. From Venezuela to Los Angeles, custom ROMs have allowed Android users to maximize the usability, longevity, and personality of their phones.

[1] https://www.xda-developers.com/venezuela-android-smartphones/

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