Custom ROMs: The past, present and future ft. Alex Cruz

Alex Cruz, popularly known as ‘mazda’ is a man with SO much knowledge, that concluding the interview and steering it in one single direction, that is, the title of this very post was tough. Not only has he headed various projects over time, he is also a very significant member of the Android Community and was kind enough to let me have a Frank talk with him.

The Dirty Unicorns Lead Developer here talks about the state of Custom ROMs. How they were when he first started out, how they are know, and how they’re probably going to be in the future. Let’s get started.

Hey Alex! I’m sure you don’t need any, but can you please give our readers a formal introduction of who you are and what is it that you do?

Hi, my name is Alex Cruz but my username in forums is Mazda so you might know me as such. I’m the founder of Dirty Unicorns and currently with the help of Josh Chasky, James Taylor and Bret Zamzow we manage all the services and things related to DU.

I like to think of myself as a jack of all trades and master of none instead of just a ROM developer because I’m constantly learning new things.

How and when did you start with Android Development, or development in general?

I got into Android development back in 2010-2011 messing around with smali which keeping it simple, is what you see when you decompile a apk. Is decompiled java and really is hard to read if you’ve never messed with it.

I would change values here and there and port features from other ROMs and really just change things that I wanted to work in ROMs like Evervolv, MIUI and others.

That really got me interested in seeing what I could do with java and having source code to work rather than a bunch of nonsense (s)

How would you rate the custom ROM scene back then, versus, the custom ROM scene now?

Oh man, that’s really a touchy special for me because I get into my ‘old man’ mood and start waving my cane. Keeping PG 13, I would say the custom ROM community scene was at its prime back then.Back then being a up and coming developer was awesome because you could lurk in a thread and just learn a ton.

Developers like toastcfh, lithid-cm, myn and many others would discuss things openly and you had a sense of community then.They were all working towards one common goal and that was making their devices better.

Today that’s no longer the case. Developers today in my opinion look at the custom ROM scene as a second form of income. Is more about how much donations they can get rather than improving their devices in general and helping each other.

I can’t remember the last time that I’ve seen developers actively talk about code in a thread. All of that is now in private chats and if someone finds a way to do something they get very secretive. So I say back then the scene was a 9 out of 10 and today we’re at about a 4 out of 10.

I would agree with you on this one.

Developers nowadays do get secretive when they discover a certain method to improve some specific part of the device. However, how do you think the future of development is? Especially with the Nexuses being cancelled and the Pixels taking their place. It’s common knowledge that the Pixels aren’t as developer friendly as the Nexuses were.

As much as it hurts me to say it, I don’t think the future of ROM development is long for this world. With things like safety net and verity only getting stronger and deeper into the core of Android, Google has pretty much declared war on things like root, unlocked bootloaders and custom recoveries.

A friend of mines, Nate Benis (Beanstown106) along with fellow DU Developer David Kataja (krash86) are currently faced with a issue on the Pixel where if you flash Gapps with the ROM (as we’re all used to) it doesn’t take. The gapps don’t make it into the system once you boot.

I don’t own the device but from what I understand from conversations with the two, this is caused by verity and its integration into the kernel. So you can see how is already getting tougher and tougher.

The Nexus line was the last true line of devices where you could get it in the mail and 10 minutes later have TWRP installed and your favorite ROM booting.

That’s really sad, but what about the incoming LineageOS? How does THAT line up with all the integration of verity and devices getting tougher to root ?

LineageOS is nothing more than just CyanogenMod with a new name. That’s not trash talking or downplaying anything. Even Steve Kondik has said that is just a rebrand. People are under the impression that is going to bring in new features and suddenly people are just going to appear.

The only thing that’s going to change is that it will have a new name. The same road blocks we have right now are still going to be there with or without LineageOS. LineageOS does not play into this because is something that Google controls.

Is more or less a cat and mouse game between us and Google.

Well, how does this affect developers in general? Now, I know you guys are 95% donations based and have barely ONE ad, but what about the devs who seek to make a secondary full time income out of development?

Do you mean the community in general is 95 percent donation based or are you referring to DU? DU is a unique project these days because we do everything that these other guys do and more but we don’t ask, suggest nor accept a dime from the community.

To your question, I don’t think it really affects developers that much unless they saw Android as what I spoke about earlier, a secondary income. Most developers I talk to don’t.

They look at Android as hobby and have said many of times that when the time comes they will probably either fall back into the user ranks or move on to app development. So I don’t think it would be a huge hit for ROM developers if and when Google gets what they want and they become the only show in town.

What about the themers? It pains me to ask you, but is there a possibility that everything crash like CM did

Do you mean themers becoming a thing of the past? I don’t think so.With Sony’s RRO and OMS hitting AOSP and the work of Nicholas Chum with Substratum they’ll be a place for them.

I don’t know if Nick would want this public or not so I might be in the dog house later but they’re working on removing the root dependency with Substratum so that keeps it alive if in case Google decides to screw the community over.

Even removing Substratum/RRO/OMS and all that out of the equation, themers will still be able to do what they do.

Say, Alex, what do you do when you’re not developing and heading projects in the Android community? What do you do for recreation?

I like to take pictures of clouds, my dogs and trees and however weird that may sound, it is enjoyable to me.

Living in Milton, Florida and anyone that’s been here can tell you that is nothing but trees so I like to be outside and enjoying everything that is got to offer. I have a lot of dogs and two active little boys so when I’m not on the computer, I’m outside..

What have you planned for the future of Dirty Unicorns? New features or something?

Our plan has always been to adapt to what comes our way and continue to improve the user experience. We’ve never set out to create X or Y feature, it happens.

Sometimes is something small where we would be looking at source code trying to fix a problem and see something that we could expose or improve onto. Sometimes it happens out of conversation. We would be in our chat talking about this or that and someone might say ‘you know what would be cool…..’ and we start talking about it and next thing you know there’s source code attached to that idea.

Sometimes is collaboration between projects. I know I said that the community wasn’t what it used to be but there’s still some collaboration between some teams.

Omni and Pure Nexus are two projects that we often collaborate with, those guys are really great and have some great ideas.

What advice would you give to the people starting out developing now?

If you’re starting out or wanting to jump in I should say, I suggest taking things slow. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is that they want to go from 0 to 100 over night. They setup a github, fork every repo from AOSP. Also, setup a website, crowdin, G+ community, twitter but they don’t provide anything different.

Moreover, they often lack git knowledge and get accused of kanging and really don’t provide anything else but a collection of other people’s work. I think if you want to get into the ROM thing, you should start out by learning git. Then instead of starting your own project out the gate, contribute to a existing project.

Learn how the fwb (frameworks base) ties into the settings and other repos. If Java is not your thing then fork a kernel. Learn how the kernel works. Contribute to Franco or Flar2 or one of those guys.

Establish yourself first and once you’ve learned the basics and have some kind of understanding of how things work.

What tools do you use on a regular basis?

What tools do I use? I use Beyond Compare, Atom, Android Studio. When I’m on the go I use JuiceSSH which allows me to connect to my box. I compile apks or the full blown ROM zip to test things that my teammates are doing.

Which Roms, other then DU, are your favorites?

What ROMs do I use other than DU? None!!! #DU4Life hahah no no I’m kidding. A lot of people think that once you have your own ROM, you’re bound to it.

A lot of developers think that what they’re doing is the best when in reality that’s not always the case.

On my other devices I sometimes run Omni, Evervolv and Pure Nexus. I do so because is not good to have tunnel vision. A lot of developers think that what they’re doing is the best when in reality that’s not always the case.

Sometimes someone or another group has a unique spin on something and I like to experience that. I get ideas from it and I may even fix something that I see within their ROM.

Also because I collaborate a lot with Nate Benis, contribute to Omni and exchange ideas with Evervolv’s Nick Reuter (elginsk8r)

On an ending note, who do you think is a Developer with extreme knowledge, but hasn’t got the spotlight?

Hands-down,  Nick Reuter (elginsk8r).

The guy is very talented and like me is a jack of all trades. He knows a lot about a lot of different things within the development community. He can work on kernels, write and fix things within the fwb, and work on apps.

Unfortunately he doesn’t often get the credit he deserves because he’s not a very public guy. He does what he needs to and doesn’t say much.

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That went quite well. Thanks to Alex Cruz for agreeing to this little interview. Here are some links you might find useful:

Dirty Unicorns G+

Dirty Unicorns Twitter

Alex Cruz (Mazda) G+