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Interview with Android Hacker JesusFreke

When T-Mobile first released the HTC G1, many of the early adopters were Linux users and fans of open source.  One of the most sought after features for Android, was the ability to gain root access to the G1.  After root access was gained, users began creating their own custom builds of the Android operating system and even replaced the system bootloader.  The most popular custom build, and the one I have flashed on my G1, was released by JesusFreke.  Since his first release months ago, JesusFreke has continued to push out new builds each time an official update is sent out from Google.
We were lucky enough to sit down with JF for a few minutes and get his thoughts on Android and the future of his releases.  If you are interested in learning more about “rooting” your phone, read to the end of the article where I include the appropriate links.  Root access is suggested for advanced users only.  You can break your phone if you do not know what you are doing.

Task Manager for Root Users
Android and Me: What are your thoughts on Android as a mobile platform?
Task Manager for Root UsersJesusFreke: I really like that it is open source. I would say that was the #1 reason that I bought the phone. It’s unfortunate that we can’t currently build from source an equivalent build to the officially released ones, but it sounds like it will get to that point eventually. I really hope they make it so that we can at least run the Google apps on our own custom builds. I think a *lot* more people would be running a custom build if we could.

AAM: What inspired you to release your own builds for Google Android? Do you have a history of hacking phones or releases for other platforms?
JF: It was mostly a case of being in the right place at the right time, with the right knowledge. I had pre-ordered my G1 so I was one of the first people to get one. At first, we didn’t know about the infamous “root bug” of course, so once I had got my phone, I was bummed that I didn’t have root access. I spent some time looking around in the source, trying to find some way to get root. One of the areas that I had investigated heavily was the recovery image, so I had become familiar with it. A week or two later, the root bug was found and everyone was happy that they could get root on their phone. Then the dreaded RC30 came out which fixed the root bug. Since I was already familiar with the recovery image and how the updates worked, I was ready to dissect the RC30 update and create a new one with root access re-enabled. Shortly after my first “root-enabled” RC30 update, I released another version with a few more modifications and features.. and I just kept going from there.
I don’t have any experience with other mobile platforms. The G1/Android is my first “smart” phone, and the first phone/mobile community that I’ve been an active member of.
AAM: How would you rate Google’s relations with open source developers in respect to Android?
JF: I think it’s awesome that you can connect to #Android on freenode and talk to some of the very same developers that work on Android. Not to mention all the Android related google groups. There are certainly still some rough spots to be sanded out with their support for open source (can’t use google apps on builds from source), but I definitely feel that they are headed in the right direction in this area.

Superuser Whitelist
AAM: Can you share with us what you do when you are not are not writing code?
JF: I have some unusual hobbies. I enjoy unicycling, slacklining, playing the didgeridoo and playing various types of percussion – my current focus is on the Indian tabla. I also enjoy reading, mostly fantasy and science fiction books, and listening to various forms of world music (among other things).
AAM: Over 100k users have visited the forums where your Android releases were first posted. Do you have any idea how many people have downloaded and are running your work?
Superuser WhitelistJF: Based on the downloads on the various mirrors that I release my firmware on, my best guesstimate is around 5k people.
AAM: I have seen quite a few users send you donations in appreciation for your work. Has this altered the amount of time you spend on your releases?
JF: Yeah, I’ve received a fair amount of donations, and I’m very appreciative to those who choose to donate. It does not affect the amount of time I spend though. This is a “fun” hobby project for me. I do it because I enjoy doing it, and the amount of time I put into it reflects that. For me, that usually means periods of very intense activity, followed by breaks of low activity as I recover.
AAM: Multi-touch is one of the features that got a lot of people interested in rooting their phones. Will you continue to add new functionality to the G1 when possible?
JF: Yes, I will continue to add functionality where it’s possible. Currently we are limited to what types of functionality we can add, because we can’t rebuild some of the components from source. Or rather, we can’t build them in a way that is compatible with the official releases. The multi-touch stuff was mostly done by lukehutch. He, ryebrye and zinx found a way to implement the underlying multi-touch support with changes just in the kernel, which is one of the components that we *can* rebuild from source. They also made changes in the Browser application to use the new multi-touch support.

Terminal Emulator on 
AAM: Do you have any future plans for your releases you can share with us? Will we be seeing an auto-updater in the next major release?
JF: I don’t plan to include an auto-updater in my build, but there is one that is being developed that users will be able to install from the market. In general, I don’t include Android applications in my builds, at least not ones that can be installed seperately, because I think it’s better to give the user the choice to install it or not. Additionally, when I include an application in the firmware, it makes it harder to upgrade or uninstall it. Finally, space in /system is at a premium, so it’s better to have applications like that installed normally, so they are stored in /data on the phone, rather than /system.
The 2 exceptions are the Superuser application, because it provides a more secure way to get root access on the phone, and the Terminal Emulator application, which I consider an “essential” application.
I would definitely like to add the ability to restore backups directly from recovery mode, instead of having to use fastboot to do the restore. Other than that, I only have a few minor changes currently planned, but nothing too major.



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