Does Hacking Closed Hardware Hinder Open Hardware?

By chromatic
October 8, 2008 | Comments: 1

If there's an average customer, I'm not him. I use open and unencumbered formats as often as possible. I don't use iTunes. (It won't run natively on any OS I use.) I have a few MP3 files, but most of my music I've ripped myself from CDs to Ogg Vorbis files.

When I decided to purchase a portable music player, I had three options:

  • Transcode my files
  • Find and purchase a player which can play Ogg Vorbis files
  • Purchase and modify a player to play Ogg Vorbis files

(Punchline first: I chose the second option.)

I bought the device primarily to play music. Modifying the device may have been fun and satisfying, but it wasn't my primary goal. Convenience was a factor; what did the device support, unmodified? Yet that wasn't my only goal.

I bought a new laptop recently. I had several options, and chose from a retailer who certifies laptops to work with Ubuntu -- no Windows or Mac OS X pre-installed. I'm certainly capable of installing Ubuntu (or any other GNU/Linux distribution) if I choose, but I enjoyed not paying the Windows Tax for software I don't want and won't use. Yet there's still something more.

"This is extreme hacking at its lunatic best..." --Davey Winder, PC Plus

XFormsFrom building an Internet toaster to creating a cubicle intrusion detection system, Hardware Hacking Projects for Geeks offers an array of inventive, customized electronics projects for the geek who can't help looking at a gadget and wondering how it might be "upgraded."

I'm no fan of binary-only drivers. While they're better than having no drivers, I believe that binary drivers are actively harmful. My laptop contains an Intel integrated video chipset. I chose this primarily because Intel actively produces open drivers.

One Dollar, One Vote

Though open drivers exist for video cards produced by companies who produce binary-only drivers, I realized a fundamental point about my purchasing habits. I'm profoundly uncomfortable purchasing devices which, by default, do not provide the freedoms I desire.

Perhaps $80 for a video card or $250 for a music player or $39 for an OEM license of Windows represents a trivial amount to the vendor -- but sales are the best measure of success for their products. These companies have no way of knowing that I purchased their hardware to modify to suit my needs or my desire for particular freedoms when looking at their sales numbers. I suspect that even a politely-worded letter saying "I bought your product despite..." would have little effect after the word despite. They have my money. I might as well run over the device with a steamroller, for all they care. (They keep more money that way, as I won't cost them anything in support or warranty replacements!)

I wonder if purchasing such a device primarily for its hackability indirectly promotes the production of proprietary devices.

One Dollar Now, Two Votes Later

The answer isn't as simple as it may seem. Jailbreaking an iPhone to work with competing cellular carriers cuts off an assumed revenue stream; Apple and AT&T may not be happy with that. Even the reality distortion field around Cupertino and the inexplicable hatred for customers seemingly emanating from every national cellular carrier in this country would notice if Apple sold a million iPhones and only ten people signed up for AT&T's service. Modding an XBox or an Apple TV sold primarily as a loss leader to avoid subscription fees or network sales effects may cost the vendor money.

I don't mean to suggest that projects such as Wine, DOSBox, ScummVM, RockBox, the iPhone Dev Team, and Nouveau are intrinsically bad, or harmful, or misguided. Nor do I want to imply that dual-booting is wrong, or that modifying a device to add extra features within the context of its original use may be a mistake. I believe strongly in the right of users to modify hardware (or software) they've purchased, for any purpose. I'm very glad that these projects exist to help people reclaim their freedoms for hardware and software that they've already purchased. Who can say if purchasing such a device used has any measurable effect?

Of course, Apple has already figured in expected and amortized support costs for the iPhone into the purchase price. The sooner they can set the flag in their customer database denying you warranty support for your cheeky behavior installing an unapproved podcast downloader, the more of your money they keep.

Even so, I'd like to see open phones and open operating systems and mobile devices which allow me to store my data in unrestricted formats natively. I have trouble convincing myself that purchasing easily-modifiable-but-still-proprietary devices helps my long-term goal for freedom-respecting software, hardware, and data.

As much as a sleek multi-touch screen with integrated media player begs for homebrew applications, or the AppleTV would run MythTV so nicely, I'm starting to believe that buying and hacking a new device to do what I want will only maintain a status quo I already find unappealing. The secondary market for used devices is another story....

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1 Comment

Nice post. I had one helluva reality check after reading this. But I think I can understand why people still go for "easily-modifiable-yet-proprietary" hardware.
I think it has to do with the level confidence people have on the open source alternative for the same product.
Even veteran open source enthusiasts will sometimes succumb to proprietary hardware devices for the simple reason that if it malfunctions, they need to "hack" it or wait for untimely(in most cases) support from the community.
They can just call their vendors and fire the hell out of them.

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