Any grizzled veteran of the aftermarket Android community (well, grizzled, in the sense that said community has been around for less than a decade) knows that users complaining about bootloaders is nothing new. Locked phone bootloaders with no user-accessible unlock option have become less of a contentious issue of late, now that customers on Neolithic carriers like AT&T and Verizon have more hardware options. But frustration is brewing in the growing and dedicated fanbase of Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi.
The XDA-Developers blog reports that Xiaomi has added locked bootloaders to several of its phones, including the Redmi Note Pro, Mi 4c, and Mi Note Pro, some of which are getting new bootloaders installed with the latest firmware. Xiaomi says that this is being done in order to stop malicious third-party sellers from loading malware onto phones before they get in the hands of end users.
In and of itself, that's not all that bad. Every phone from every reputable manufacturer comes with a locked bootloader, even Google's Nexus line - it's just a matter of whether an unlock method is available, and how difficult it is to obtain. In the case of Nexus phones, it's just a fastboot command. Some manufacturers have similar user-accessible bootloader unlock commands, some require an unlock code that's provided when the user requests it (Motorola's Bootloader Unlock Tool is a good example), and some manufacturers and/or carriers don't allow their phones to be unlocked at all. Even as rooting and custom ROMs become less popular, these anti-user policies still inspire modders to look for work-arounds and cracks.
Xiaomi is opting for the Motorola model, allowing users to unlock their phones after verifying their hardware with the company. But the process is far from simple. XDA reports that you'll need to download a desktop program, log into an MIUI account on both your phone and a desktop browser, and wait for a verification and OEM unlock code from the company sent via SMS. Even that's more complex than it sounds, because the unlock tool is presented only in Chinese (though English walk-throughs are available), and you must supply a reason for your request. ("Because it's my damn phone" is the go-to justification for most enthusiasts, and rightly so.) Some users are reporting that they have to wait as much as three weeks in order to be verified and get their code.
Even that inconvenience wouldn't be completely out of the ordinary, but high-ranking members of the MIUI user forum are receiving special treatment with fast-track bootloader unlock applications. Once you reach a certain level on the official forum, you get added to a "whitelist" and your application is approved without the long wait. It's ugly business from a company that has been building a reputation on open communication with its most vocal customers, most of whom are enthusiastic supporters in Xiaomi's home market, and it isn't winning them any fans from power users who spend their time on XDA, Reddit, and other non-official forums instead.
Adding even more complications to the issue is that some users are reporting bootloops and bricked phones after upgrading to the latest firmware, which installs the locked bootloader. That's no problem for an experienced Android user... except that they need to unlock the bootloader in order to access fastboot and re-install an older build or try a custom ROM. Throw these conventional customer service problems on top of the long wait times and preferential treatment mentioned above, and you have a recipe for unrest among Xiaomi customers.