Several Android communities emerged, engaging in technical discussions about such older devices. And the only topic that particularly fueled topics, messages, and comments was custom ROMs. And that was pretty much the case with us here NextPit which once had a vibrant community of modders.
The background of custom ROMs
In short, custom ROMs are standalone versions of Android that can be installed on devices. The process usually involves replacing the boot loader, as the device’s boot system is called, by installing the new operating system over it. Some of the most famous examples include CyanogenMod or even MIUI itself, which for a while was viewed as an alternative to other brands’ smartphones.
The manufacturers did not always agree with the practice, as this violates the factory warranty. For a few years (when this was all in the Wild West), discussions about ROMs were very popular as they extended the life of the smartphone and sometimes even performed better than the original smartphone itself.
Some will say that there never really was an era of custom ROMs as the installation process was never easy enough for most devices. There was also a multitude of versions and requirements problem that prevented custom ROMs from popularizing. And now that smartphone makers are finally taking the initiative to roll out security updates to Android for an extended period of time (as recently highlighted by Samsung), the whisper of the age of custom ROMs is starting to pick up pace.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying custom ROMs are dead. There will always be room for custom solutions that are more than willing to serve equipment that has already been abandoned by manufacturers and that provide extra lifespan for older equipment.
The Rise and Fall of CyanogenMod
However, there was a time when it looked like custom ROMs were going mainstream. Even the developer Cyanogen, who is responsible for the famous CyanogenMod distribution, was hired by Samsung.
Shortly thereafter, in 2013, Cyanogen Inc. was founded to market the distribution, and this move generated suspicion among the community that supported (and worked on) the ROM for years. Even after capital injections from investors including Microsoft, the project broke the commitments it had signed with OnePlus and, in late 2016, heralded the end of the company that once assembled and distributed the ROMs.
The ideals of the project persist in the form of its direct successor, LineageOS, with a similar development infrastructure, tracking AOSP releases, and distributing nightly trials to a variety of devices.
However, the importance attached to every new version and smartphone supported by CyanogenMod does not seem to repeat itself with LineageOS, although the system continues to take advantage of Android updates, performance, and levels of customization. Even the frequent change logs on the official blog seem to be getting rarer, so the activity log remains in the project’s source code as the main reference point for keeping track of the latest changes in ROM development.
Still strong among niche brands
Millions of people use devices equipped with custom ROMs – over three million run LineageOS according to distribution statistics. But the view that stand-alone systems would become mainstream seems to be nothing more than a pipe dream today.
Custom ROMs still play an important role on niche devices like F (x) tec Pro 1X, which were developed in collaboration with the XDA site, another community that came into being as a result of adjustments to the Android system.
In addition, documentation of specifications and drivers helps devices like the Fairphone 2 receive system updates years after the SoC was deleted by the component manufacturer. The sustainable smartphone was launched in 2015 – with Android 5.1 and Snapdragon 801 on board, which is only getting Android 9 this week with official support from the company, thanks to the hard work of the LineageOS community, no matter that Android 12 will be the taste from 2021.
That same level of dedication allows devices equipped with the same chip, such as the OnePlus One, Samsung Galaxy S5, LG G3, Sony Xperia Z3, and Moto X, all of which have long been abandoned by manufacturers to get new unofficial versions of, for example Android.
What is the future of custom ROMs?
However, it seems that not much has changed since the days I needed to unlock the bootloader on the Xperia Play or Motorola Defy while checking to see if I downloaded the appropriate build for the regional version of the smartphone following a number steps carefully and boot the device while keeping your fingers crossed so that I didn’t make a serious misstep before installing the GApps package.
To answer my own clickbait question:: No, custom ROMs haven’t received their death knell, and their meaning remains the same as it was a decade ago (was it that long ago?). However, the dream that any user will one day be able to install it from the factory ROM in just a few steps, as a mainstream solution to the short update cycle that organizations provide, remains a distant dream.
Today we are at least blessed with better update processes, more frequent security fixes and features that are independent of Android versions. In fact, I’d like to believe that this change was motivated by the community of volunteers around the world who are working to expand the support of our smartphones to this day.
However, this change in the attitude of some manufacturers is only relevant for newer versions or models that are not exactly the focus of the work of ROM developers: who continue to develop software for old smartphones. Of course, given the uncertain future of certain brands like LG, there will be more and more devices that need to be updated.
What about you? Do you think custom ROMs will continue to be an exclusive community of enthusiasts? Or is there still a chance for a new OnePlus that picks up an Android distribution from the community and makes it available to the public? Let us know what you think in the comments.