Unfortunately, it’s starting to look like hardware makers will never learn. Users who hoped Android-based phones would be less locked-down than Apple’s iPhones have had a moderately easy time of it; locks were fairly simply overridden, and Google actually enforced a simple, one-step root method for the Nexus One. Several recent flagship phones, however, have had extra protection put in them explicitly to prevent rooting or tinkering with the phone. The HTC Desire, as an example, will actively reboot the phone if it senses anything trying to write to the /system partition on the device. Undocumented hardware blocks and unprotected memory even led to many accidental overwrites of basic phone information, causing what was widely termed the “USB brick” for affected phones. With very careful, very selective memory rewrites, however, the phones could be recovered.
Motorola felt compelled to take this even one step further. Using an eFUSE implementation, Moto has managed to make your phone brick itself if it thinks you’re toying with the bootloader. For those unfamiliar with eFUSE, they’re used as shortcuts or reroutes in processors. Given a particular signal, the device can be told to trip a “fuse,” changing the operation of the chip while the chip is in use. While this is frequently used to provide optimizations in processors, Motorola has abused it dreadfully; if the phone doesn’t receive the proper authentication from the bootloader, it trips the eFUSE, corrupting the bootloader and completely preventing all device activity.
eFUSE is a repeatable process, so the fuse can be un-tripped much the same as the ones in your real fuse box—but it requires, at the moment, a return to Motorola. The only way to correct it is with a JTAG debugger, and only Moto knows what’s needed to talk to the phone or reset the fuses.
The good news? Messing with the bootloader isn’t required to root the device, so root access will likely be possible, but the point of rooting—installing, testing, and playing with new builds of Android (ROMs)—is definitely out of the picture as long as this restriction stands. Since flashing ROMs requires a modified bootloader to accept unauthorized images, there’s no way to avoid bricking your device.
The Android community has frequently rallied around these kind of situations, so there’s a chance a homebrew JTAG effort could be launched or the calls to eFUSE could be debugged and faked, but this is a real blow to the Droid X community. One of the reason these devices are popular are because they’re a tinkerer’s heaven; it’s easily why the Droid continued to sell so well for so long. Open hardware and software leads to vibrant, creative communities. A phone that actively and purposely bricks itself when you try to toy around… that’s not something that even Apple has stooped to yet.