Customised mobile operating systems are available for users to upgrade the operating system

Know that feeling you get when you miss the flight after buying an expensive ticket? That is probably how smartphone users feel when they discover that their brand-new phone is no longer able to install the latest applications.Not because the phone hardware has become obsolete or will be sluggish when running those apps, but simply because the operating system, the platform on which these applications are installed, is not the latest.

Buying a new car because you want to change the tint, or a new laptop because you want to change the operating system, as absurd as it seems, is the trend encouraged with smartphones.

“Official support” for the latest software releases is not extended by vendors; instead consumers are encouraged to buy newer models of the gadgets with the latest operating system.

However, when the operating system platform is Open Source as in the case of Android, even if the device manufacturers or Google do not offer upgrades, the community of developers offer state-of-the-art releases for most of the popular Android gadgets.

Android, being an Open Source project, allows the developer community to download, modify and improve the operating system. Although Google does not officially endorse these custom releases, it is the nature of Open Source communities to release customised versions, as has been with the Linux-based desktop operating systems.

Customised mobile operating systems, based on Android, are made available to users, so that they can upgrade their phone operating system to the latest releases. Such customised operating systems residing in the ‘Read Only Memory’ of gadgets, are commonly known as Custom ROMs, or firmwares.

One popular community that has been active in releasing Android-based custom ROMs is Cyanogenmod, which is attempting to make Android more open and less dependent on Google, while still giving all the technical joys of the latest Android as a mobile platform.

Getting Custom ROMs

Installing Custom ROM is like reinstalling one’s operating system on a desktop, except that on cellphones it is more contrived and inherently disabled. So, as the first step, the smartphone needs to be unlocked to be able to install and run a compatible custom ROM. For a non-geek, it is arduous and might even seem like a tedious technical coaster ride, but with some technical help it is a reward that gives the user more features without new investment.

The first step to unlock Android phones is to get the right privileges. Android is based on Linux, which follows the concept of hierarchical privileges to different users accessing resources on one’s machine.

‘Guest privilege’ allows the user to use the system resources and make minor changes, which is the default mode smartphones are shipped with. The higher echelons of system privileges bestow users with the potential to tinker and tamper around the system resources. In the Linux/Unix jargon, a user with the highest privileges is termed ‘root’ or Superuser.

“Imagine you are ‘Clark Kent’ and you discover the hidden special abilities or ‘SU’per Power known as SUPERMAN. Given a chance to live your life, whom would you choose? Clark Kent or Superman,” asks Devi Prasath, an Android developer, introducing the idea of the Superuser in Android phones. Superuser is the Superman in your smartphone, who can turn things upside down.

This trend of rooting one’s phone, until recently, was widely discouraged by hardware manufacturers, but of late is being supported by phone manufacturers. Official support to third-party firmware is something many companies are encouraging now, to expand the compatibility of drivers and peripherals.

Value addition

About half the Android devices today are running the two-year-old Gingerbread (Android 2.3) version. If the hardware supports it, which is mostly the case, users can hop onto the latest firmwares available such as Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) or Jelly Bean (Android 4.2) on their existing hardware by rooting their gadgets and installing the latest compatible release from Cyanogenmod.

Running custom ROMs such as Cyanogenmod firstly allows the user to experience the latest release of the Android version. The latest available Cyanogenmod, version 10.1 is based on the latest Android release version 4.2.2. Apart from bringing the default features in the latest versions, there are other enhancements that Cyanogenmod can unleash. In phones running custom ROMs, the processor and battery wasted on these services can be utilised on more purposeful applications.

Quicker booting, faster processing, and lesser memory utilisation are certain factors to substantially improve the experience of using these Android-based custom firmwares. lists the devices officially supported by the Cyanogenmod community. Almost every popular Android smartphone has the latest Cyanogenmod support.