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Rooting your Android phone is a rite of passage. It unlocks the functionality that separates Android from iOS and opens a realm of almost infinite customization. Replacing the entire operating system is possible on a rooted device.
So, given the benefits, why are Android phones not rooted from the factory? Even those sold by Google, like the Nexus 4 and 7, require root after purchase. Why is that the case? Is there a legitimate reason, or is just another ambiguous business decision?
For Your Own Protection
One of Android’s central security features is the isolation of each app into its own little sandbox. When you download and install an app on a standard Android device, you are effectively giving it its own user account with its restrictions.
That’s what the permissions you see on an Android device are – a list of everything the new app’s “account” will have access to. Think of it like logging on to a computer at work. If the IT department has locked down certain websites or features there’s not much you can do to get around those restrictions.
This can be a boon for security. Since apps are locked into their own sandbox they can’t go sniffing for information in other apps or in Android services they’re not allowed to access. That limits the damage a malicious app can do (in theory, at least).
Rooting a phone breaks down these safeguards and allows the installation of apps that can access virtually anything on your device. That’s not great.
Safeguarding System Files
Rooting can expose a device to more than malware. The process also leaves Android exposed to everyone operating system’s greatest enemy – the user.
Back in the era of Windows 95/98, a user could cripple their Windows installation by mucking around with the wrong files. Users could even delete critical system files in active use, resulting in an immediate BSOD. I know because I did it (I was 14, okay? Cut me some slack).
The problem is even worse for smartphones because they’re not designed to be easy for the user to service. If Windows is corrupted, you’re just a re-install away. But what happens if your Android is bricked and the best tricks don’t work? You cry and buy a new one, that’s what.
Microsoft eventually learned to keep users out of critical system files. Google, on the other hand, decided to head off the problem from the start. By denying root access, users are prevented from manually deleting Android’s most important files, making smartphones and tablets resilient against the most foolhardy owners.
Carriers Care About Branding
If you buy an Android device through your mobile carrier it will almost certainly come with a number of built-in apps. Some of these apps are used to unlock value-added features provided by the carrier while others are basic bloatware that have been included through an agreement with a third party (my old HTC Thunderbolt came with the Blockbuster app, for instance).
Most devices don’t let users uninstall these apps by default. And why would they? From a carrier’s perspective, a phone that isn’t tied down to the carrier’s network is a liability.
Verizon, for example, provides several branded apps that let users do things like check their data usage. These help users become comfortable with Verizon’s specific ecosystem. Switching carriers would mean learning new apps on a new device – and believe it or not, that can be a serious problem for some users.
Rooted devices can uninstall these apps. Carriers don’t want that. So, regardless what Google or customers might desire, rooted phones don’t ship.
Google Is A Company, Remember?
That’s not to say Google has an interest in providing rooted devices. Consider the Nexus 7. This tablet is Wi-Fi only, so mobile carriers have no stake it. Yet there’s not even the option to root the device from the factory. Why?
Security, as I explained, is one reason. But Google’s business is another. Android is given away for free, but Google must make a profit. How? Advertising. Developers can support their free Android apps with Adsense and web developer targeting mobile can use the same to make a profit.
PC users can block ads without much trouble. Doing so on Android is far more difficult. AdBlock Plus is available on the app store, but it doesn’t work very well on phones that aren’t rooted. The same is true of any competitor. To properly block ads, root is required.
This may sound malicious on the part of Google. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. Android is provided for free, and most of the devices are relatively inexpensive. Advertising is the price users pay. By refusing root access, Google ensures no one gets a free ride.
The ultimate reason why Androids aren’t rooted from the factory is simple. Google doesn’t want them to be.
Android is Google’s creation, and it alone is responsible for what the operating system can or can’t do. Anyone can use the operating system for free but Google and Google alone dictates the development of the primary Android fork. The arguments in this article provide perspective as to why Android has been developed as it has but, ultimately, the choice belongs to Google.
Do you think this was the right decision? Or would making root access available by default would help unlock Android’s potential? Let us know in the comments.