Debrand: One man’s phone unlocking & debranding emporium

When Ben Lam left Hong Kong for the UK in 2001 to pursue a career in Civil Engineering, little did he know that nine years later he’d be capitalising on, what is in many eyes, one of the mobile industry’s biggest annoyances.

Rather than following his planned career path into construction and the built environment, Lam’s interest in mobile phones and his desire to build his own business led him down a much different route, namely ‘phone debranding.

Now, by ‘debranding’ – also known as ‘unbranding’ or ‘decustomising’ –  we don’t mean chiselling the Nokia, Samsung or Sony Ericsson lettering off a handset’s shiny facade (though such services do exist).

No, we mean what’s known in the trade as ‘Flashing’ – essentially, removing that horrible network-software that comes pre-installed on many handsets procured on a contract with a specific mobile phone company.

Working from a small rented booth in a South London internet cafe, Lam has been running since 2005, and left his Civil Engineering career altogether in 2007 to focus on his mobile phone unlocking and debranding business full-time.

The rise of debranding

Whilst mobile phone unlocking is a fairly widespread offering in outlets across the country, debranding is a little harder to come by and is a key differentiator for Lam’s business.

“I started debranding mobile phones in 2005, at a time when there were maybe only ten or so other people offering it in the UK”, Lam says. “I was Flashing around a hundred phones a week within a year – some handsets were coming from as far away as Italy and the US. There are a few hundred people offering debranding now in the UK, but still much less than unlocking, because of the risk that debranding will render the phone unusable. ‘Bricking’ the phone, as we call it.”

It’s this fear of ‘bricking’ a mobile that has deterred many mobile users from being have-a-go heroes, which has worked out well for Lam. But with free debranding software now more widely available and less need for specialised equipment to carry out the debranding, Lam has seen a decrease in debranding requests, “but I still debrand up to forty ‘phones a week”, says Lam.

Now, if you’re one of those people who goes for SIM only deals, choosing to buy their handset separately, then it’s likely you’ve never encountered this practice. But for the millions of people who sign-up for the full package on a 12, 18 or 24 month contract, you’ve probably been subjected to some of the nasty network software out there.

The first tell-tale sign that a network has infiltrated your ‘phone’s inner-workings is you’ll see your network’s logo on the start-up screen – harmless enough in itself. But on closer inspection, the network may have installed an internet shortcut button on the main menu, which means you may sometimes connect accidentally if the phone’s in your pocket or you’re careless enough to hit the wrong button.

And networks such as Orange has its very own “Orange World” browser which is configured so it doesn’t work with Wi-Fi connectivity on some handsets, meaning you have to connect to the internet over the mobile network which, as we all know, can be rather expensive.

“Orange is the network I receive the most debranding requests for by far…over 50% anyway”, says Lam. “And 02 probably has the lightest branding out of all the UK networks”.

So why have thousands of disgruntled mobile phone users rushed to use Lam’s services in the past five years? “The main reasons people give for debranding their handsets is that they want their phones to work faster, they don’t want their networks forcing them to use their web services and they ultimately want more stable firmware”, says Lam.

And this is a key point. Networks don’t test their own firmware on other networks. So if a mobile user decides they want to unlock their phone and use it on other networks, they may run into problems.”

“Unlocking a phone doesn’t remove the branding”, says Lam. “So, whilst a phone may work on another network after it has been unlocked, if the previous network’s software is still on the phone, users may find their ‘phone crashes from time to time. Handsets’ generic firmware created by the likes of Sony Ericsson and Nokia is tested extensively on different networks before it’s released – hence it tends to be far more stable.”

The issues caused by networks’ branded firmware are numerous. Depending on your mobile operator, you may have ringtone restrictions, RSS feed functionality disabled, 2G (GSM)/3G (Dual Mode) disabled, reduced memory and wireless connectivity issues. And that’s before we even get to the much loved Apps which are revolutionising the way people use their mobiles.

“The iPhone doesn’t receive the branded firmware treatment from mobile operators”, says Lam. “But some networks do restrict certain Apps from being installed – for which we have what’s known as jailbreaking. It’s different to debranding but has a similar outcome for the user. ”

And this is the crux of the issue for many people. Mobile users simply want the freedom to use their devices in the way they were intended, and not be locked into doing things the networks’ way, with restrictions on functionality and clunky firmware forced upon them. And it really doesn’t make sense either – why would networks run the risk of alienating their customers by forcing their unwanted software on them?

Lam agrees. “It really doesn’t make sense.” He continues: “But I’m starting to see a little less branded firmware on the whole. I think the networks are beginning to realise that many people don’t like it and it could end up costing them a lot of revenue.”

But for now, the millions of mobile users across the UK will have to tolerate nasty network-software. Either that, or debrand.