Jailbreak! Upgrading a non-upgradable Android

Is your old Android phone a dead end? Crack it open and breathe new life into it with a replacement ROM

Android practically demands to be hacked and modded. A whole subculture of Android hackers has emerged, hell-bent on making the 'Droid something its manufacturers never intended it to be. What's more, some Android phone makers now regard hacker-friendliness as a selling point; HTC even saw fit to announce recently that it will allow customization of bootloaders on future phones.

Predictably, one of the most popular Android hacker activities is altering older phones to run newer Android versions. And that's exactly what I intended to do.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Ready for an upgrade? Check out these 10 upcoming Android devices we can't wait for. | Keep up on mobile developments with InfoWorld's Mobilize newsletter and Mobile Edge blog. ]

You see, I had in my possession one of the first Android devices, a Motorola Cliq XT that ran Android 1.4. It turned out to be one of many phones that later became infamous for not receiving any further Android updates; Motorola decided it couldn't get Android 2.x running well enough on the Cliq, so it simply abandoned any future upgrades. A whole galaxy of 'Droid software -- even such obvious staples as Amazon's Kindle application -- was out of my reach unless I bought a new phone.

When I started jailbreaking my Cliq XT, typing the needed commands on the phone's keyboard was the biggest bottleneck.

So I decided to jailbreak my Cliq phone -- hack and take control of a device that's normally locked down (a process also known as "rooting"). It turned out to be quite an odyssey, with twists and turns I describe here in order to help those who wish to embark on a similar journey. In the end, I chose the CyanogenMod variety of "aftermarket firmware," which comes in a version for the Cliq and just about every Android device out there.

Was it worth the trouble? Yes, in the sense that learning how to jailbreak your own phone is a valuable skill, and I got much more functionality out of the Cliq, when I was expecting to simply junk it. The adventure wasn't without its tribulations, though, and a jailbroken phone has its functional limits. Here's how events unfolded.

Jailbreak, Android style
The first step for me was to jailbreak my Cliq XT. The process typically involves exploiting a security hole or some other design defect to allow the user to gain privileges not normally granted. Once this is done, the user can then replace the stock version of Android with one of any number of other custom versions -- usually newer editions of 'Droid, but also customized editions of the OS that include changes provided by the hackers themselves.

Since jailbreaking involves exploiting security holes, there's constant tension between those who create jailbreaking strategies and the phone or phone OS manufacturers. Not long after a hole is discovered, it's usually patched by the phone maker. Consequently, the exact steps to take when jailbreaking a phone vary widely from model to model, so you need to dig up instructions specific to that make.

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