I recently wrote about my first generation
Kindle Fire and some of the benefits it has provided me, such as web access,
Dropbox usage and, of course, keeping up on my reading. While I’ve been happy
with what the Kindle can do on its own, working in IT means you have to push
onward and upward to check out new developments and techniques.

This
version of the Kindle runs the older Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) by default; a
special version customized specifically by Amazon called “Fire OS.” I mentioned
in my article that it is possible to install a full version of the Android
operating system on the Kindle Fire to add even more capabilities. This takes
place via a process called “rooting” which I decided to try out.

There’s
been some talk on TechRepublic recently about rooting Androids. My colleague
Jack Wallen wrote an article and recorded an accompanying video titled “Best practices for rootingyour Android device” in early March, 2014. Wallen discussed using a product called
“saferoot” on his Samsung Galaxy S4, cautioning that different methods will
apply to different devices. He also covered the topic for the Verizon Samsung
Galaxy S4 in February, 2014. It’s not exactly a simple process and there are
some risks, as we will see.

One
of the commenters to my article, “inventor96,” helpfully provided a link to an article by Brad Linder on liliputing.com discussing how to root a
first generation Kindle Fire, so I took a look and got started on the process. In
a nutshell, it involves using a utility called the “Kindle Fire Utility” to update
the default “recovery console” – a partition in device memory that the Kindle
can boot into to perform maintenance operations like factory resets. In this
case, the updated recovery console is called “TWRP” which is short for “Team Win
Recovery Project.” It allows the installation of the custom Android 4.2 Jelly
Bean OS (known as a “ROM” which stands for “Read Only Memory”) which is
downloaded separately then applied to the device.

I
won’t repost the entirety of the article here since the specific step-by-step
instructions are already there, but rather will outline what I did, what I
observed, and what happened next to give you a play-by-play description of the
process as I experienced it.

The
instructions provide options for upgrading a Kindle with a custom ROM already
installed as well as performing a fresh Android 4.2 install. I went with the
latter option since I was using the default Fire OS that came with the Kindle
(version 6.3.2).

As
a point of caution, Linder warns, “There are a few good reasons to stick
with Amazon’s software. You lose access to the Amazon Instant Video streaming
app and the Amazon Kindle Owners’ Lending Library if you install a custom ROM.
You may also take a wrong move and end up with an unbootable Kindle (although
it’s tough to make an irreversible mistake with a first-generation Kindle
Fire).” In a separate article devoted to rooting a Kindle
Fire with software version 6.3.1, he also stated that “rooting the tablet and
installing custom firmware may also void your warranty — and there’s no
official support, so if anything goes wrong you’re on your own.”

I
was fairly warned. Now that we know the stakes, let’s see how I fared.

I downloaded the Kindle Fire
utility

The
Kindle Fire utility is the key player in this
story; it allows you to not only root your device but install ROMs or apps and
manage settings.

It’s
not really an installable program so much as a folder containing the drivers,
files, tools and commands needed to conduct the rooting/ROM installation. Launching
“run.bat” in the root of the Kindle File folder brings up the following screen:

 

 

Since
the instructions stated to “install TWRP or ClockworkMod Recovery as well as
the FireFireFire Bootloader” I hooked my Kindle up to my laptop computer using
the USB cable and opted for option #3; “Install Latest TWRP Recovery.” The
process kicked off happily enough, but then I hit a snag:

 

 

The
process was stuck at “waiting for device.” I unplugged and plugged the Kindle
back in, but no dice. I noted that tip in the screenshot above to “check device
manager for kindle.” It seemed my Windows 7 system needed a driver for the
Kindle. The root directory of the Kindle Fire utility includes a handy .bat
file called “install_drivers.bat.” I ran this and a wizard kicked off which
helpfully installed the driver for me. The Kindle then appeared in Device
Manager as an “Android ADB Interface”:

 

 

However,
the Kindle Fire utility still could not install TWRP; I encountered the same
“Waiting for Device” message.

While
writing my original Kindle Fire article last month I needed to get screenshots
from the device, so I followed some instructions I found online to
complete this process. It entailed installing the Java Development Kit, the
Android Software Development Kit, then a USB driver for the device so I could
transfer the screenshots to my desktop.

Reasoning
that since my desktop computer already had the correct driver installed, I
hooked up my Kindle and fired up the Kindle Fire utility on that system. This
time it recognized my device and I was able to start the TWRP Recovery
installation:

 

 

The
Kindle rebooted as per that line “The Kindle has been told to reboot in
Fastboot mode,” but then the process hit a brick wall at that “MD5 did not
match” error. Suddenly the device refused to boot up any further than
displaying “Kindle Fire” on the screen.

Uh-oh.

So, what next?

Various
efforts at powering off and on the Kindle produced nothing beyond the words
“Kindle Fire” displaying on the screen. Oddly enough, Windows kept complaining
about an unrecognized driver when the Kindle was connected to the PC – a
symptom that the device was borked, as we call it. Installing the original
driver and the driver that came with the Kindle Fire utility did not work.

Disconnecting
and reconnecting it to the computer then launching the Kindle Fire Utility was
also no help; I couldn’t use any of the offered commands since the utility
couldn’t see the device:

 

 

If
the Kindle Fire Utility COULD see the device I could use the Bootmode Menu
option to try to fix this, but apparently the Kindle didn’t have enough of a
pulse. Resetting it to factory defaults wasn’t possible either since it has to
be able to boot up in the first place to do that.

Various
tips online yielded no progress; charging up the device, holding the power
switch for 20, 30 or 60 seconds then releasing it, powering it up then
connecting it to the USB cable and so forth. At present it seems the Kindle is
bricked, sadly enough, but if the status changes I’ll announce it in the
comments section of this article along with what I did to fix it.

Post-mortem

I’ll
admit I was less than pleased by the outcome. However, I don’t blame Linder or
the developers of the Kindle Fire utility; I’m sure this process has worked for
them but something was unique about my setup.

I
reflected on a fourth-season episode of Breaking Bad whereby criminal kingpin
Walter White buys a car wash as part of a money laundering scheme. As he tours
the facility with the owner (his despised ex-boss), they find flaws in the
establishment but the owner keeps reminding him the sale is “as is.” Walter
turns this around by taking the framed “First Dollar We Earned” from the owner
and using it to buy a soda after reminding his adversary: “as is.” That term
describes the rooting process and any negative repercussions to a “T.” I don’t
intend to appeal to Amazon for help since the Kindle is undoubtedly out of
warranty and this is my responsibility to shoulder. If you want to play, you’ve
got to be ready to pay.

I’m
not entirely sure what went wrong, but suspect it had something to do either
with the driver that was loaded on my desktop PC or the one that came with the
Kindle Fire utility. The “MD5 did not match” error appears to have been the
source of the problem but I have not found anything useful to explain it yet.

This
is the danger with rooting a device; as previously stated support may be
minimal or non-existent and you’re left to the mercy of whatever online
comments might provide guidance. I knew the risk and pursued it in the interest
of science. The good news is that you can buy a first generation Kindle Fire on
E-Bay for $55 or so, which I will do if I am unable to recover this device.

Is
there anything I can recommend to you, the reader? Well, looking back I would
say that if you attempt to root a device don’t deviate one iota from the documented
steps involved. In my case the Kindle Fire Utility driver didn’t seem to work
on my laptop so I introduced an unknown element into the process by using my
desktop PC and the separate driver. Looking back I should have resolved the
original driver issue or quit the experiment.

Do
I plan to attempt the rooting process again? Well … in my capacity as a system
administrator and tech writer I’m sure I will find myself involved in a similar
experiment down the road, but in terms of rooting the next Kindle Fire, at the
moment my answer is “I suspect not.” Despite this experience (or perhaps now
because of it) I am somewhat loss-averse which is why while I’m in Vegas I swim
and go to restaurants instead of gamble. The original Amazon-based OS worked
fine and met my needs, but I wouldn’t rule out rooting another device with a
different set of steps and utilities.

There’s
a Latin phrase called “Caveat Emptor” which means “Let the buyer beware.” I
wonder if there is a similar phrase for “Let the tinkerer beware?” According to
the Latin dictionary the word for scientist is “physicus,” which seems close
enough, so my new motto is therefore “Caveat Physicus!”