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[school-discuss] A Linux pc for $180?
Some Xbox Enthuasiasts Microsoft Didn't Aim For
AFTER a 31-year-old Manhattan financial executive received Microsoft's
Xbox video game system as a gift in January, he walked to a store and
bought a half-dozen game titles.
New York Times Full Feed
New York Times Full Feed via NewsEdge Corporation : AFTER a 31-year-old
Manhattan financial executive received Microsoft's Xbox video game
system as a gift in January, he walked to a store and bought a
half-dozen game titles. The video game industry would have been pleased
to hear it.
After he played those games a few times against computer-controlled
opponents, he got a bit bored and signed up for Microsoft's Xbox Live
service, which enabled him to play against other people online. The
video game industry, again, would have been pleased.
After a few months on the Xbox Live network, in May, he got a bit bored
again. This time, however, he opened his Xbox and soldered in a chip
that allowed him to change the console's basic computer code and bypass
its internal security technology. After installing a new hard drive, he
transferred about 3,000 MP3 music files to the system and downloaded
illegal copies of 3,500 old-time arcade games. Then he installed the
Linux operating system, which allowed him to use the box essentially as
a personal computer.
Needless to say, the video game industry would not have been pleased.
When Microsoft released the Xbox in November 2001, it was heralded as
far more than a game machine. Even as the Xbox took aim at Sony's
PlayStation 2 game empire, the console was meant to lead Microsoft's
broader invasion of the living room. Incorporating a hard drive, which
made it more readily adaptable than other consoles, the Xbox had the
potential to be a digital-entertainment nerve center.
Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman, said at the time, "We're going to put
new software that runs on Xbox that, both in the gaming dimension and
other dimensions, will amaze people with the power that's in this box."
That is happening, but not necessarily as Microsoft planned. All sorts
of new software is indeed running on Xbox consoles these days, and they
are in fact becoming home-entertainment hubs, but it is not Microsoft
doing the amazing.
Rather, an online confederacy apparently numbering in the thousands --
including accomplished hackers of varied motives and everyday
technophiles like the Manhattan financial executive (who shared his
experience on the condition of anonymity) -- is taking the lead. Those
involved often call their efforts "unleashing" or "unshackling" --
freeing the Xbox to express its inner PC. Technology industry
executives, however, often call such activity a bald attempt to hijack
the Xbox illegally.
It is a battle that involves many of the ethical and legal issues facing
the technology and media industries at this digital moment. What rights
do consumers have to tinker with products they own? How far should
companies go to protect their intellectual property? What happens when
the desires of consumers conflict with the business models of companies
they patronize? Who gets to decide just what a particular product may be
The Xbox is a particularly attractive target for hackers because while
it is essentially a standard PC modified to do only a few things, like
play Xbox games, it is much cheaper than a PC. It is like an economy car
modified to follow only a few roads -- but one potentially as powerful
as a far more expensive model.
In the Xbox, that power comes in the form of a 733-megahertz Intel
processor, comparable to a midrange personal computer, and sophisticated
graphics and audio systems. Its limited operating system, based on a
version of Windows, can be used by a programmer to run simple software
like a music player -- or the machine can run a new operating system
altogether, namely Linux. "The reality is that if you could bypass
Microsoft's operating system you would end up with a fairly powerful
computer for less than $200," the Manhattan financial executive said.
In fact, Microsoft lowered the price for Xbox to $179.99 in May. In a
sense, Xbox hackers are exploiting Microsoft's business model, which is
to sell Xbox hardware at a loss (to build penetration of the system) and
make the money back on royalties from the sale of Xbox software. A PC
manufacturer like Dell, meanwhile, has to recoup its costs and generate
a profit from the initial sale.
So someone who buys the Xbox hardware, modifies it into a
general-purpose computer and does not buy Xbox games potentially
undermines not only Microsoft but also the personal computer industry.
But that is not how some Xbox hackers think about it.
"Especially in Europe, computers are more expensive than they are here,
and the Xbox is the cheapest computer you can get," Andrew Huang, author
of a new book called "Hacking the Xbox: An Introduction to Reverse
Engineering," said in a telephone interview. "Basically," he added by
e-mail, "once you have Linux, you have everything."
It is unclear just how many Xbox hackers there are. Officials of the
Interactive Digital Software Association, a trade group of video game
publishers, said that Xbox hacking appeared more prevalent in parts of
Asia than in North America. Michael Steil, a 24-year-old German who is
project leader of a group that calls itself the Xbox Linux Project, said
by e-mail that a full version of Linux software for the Xbox had been
downloaded more than 220,000 times.
Whatever the numbers, Microsoft does not appear eager to discuss Xbox
hacking. In recent weeks, a Microsoft public relations representative
repeatedly declined to make any company executives available to discuss
the matter. Instead, the company issued a statement through a public
relations firm that said in part: "Microsoft is a company passionate
about innovation and creativity. We are also very committed to respect
for others' intellectual property and we request the same respect
applied to our innovations."
The statement made no reference to the potential use of hacked Xbox
consoles as personal computers, saying Microsoft's "primary concern" was
with the sale of modified chips for the boxes "that enable game
counterfeiting." And that is the area that most clearly raises legal
Although there are several methods, hacking an Xbox typically involves
obtaining a special chip called a modchip, available on the Internet,
and soldering it into the machine. (For those who find the process
daunting, there are also vendors on the Internet who sell "pre-modded"
Modchips, of which there are several varieties, allow users to load new
versions of the basic computer code, known as the BIOS, that tells the
machine how to operate. A hacked BIOS generally incorporates modified
versions of copyrighted Microsoft code and so is generally illegal. The
main Web sites that deal with Xbox hacking do not include links to
hacked BIOS, and hackers generally find their forbidden fruit in
Internet chat rooms.
Once the modchip is installed and the BIOS modified, the console can do
a number of things it cannot do "out of the box." Xbox games normally
must be run from an optical disk, and a hacked Xbox can "back up" a game
to the unit's hard drive and run the game without the disk. This
technique could be used simply to avoid having to insert and remove
disks -- or it could be used for piracy (say, by renting a game, putting
the software on the hard drive and returning the game).
Until passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998, the mere
sale of a modified chip would not have appeared illegal. That law,
however, prohibits the sale of devices that are primarily meant to
circumvent copyright protection.
Companies and technologists will fight over the exact legal meaning of
those provisions for years. For now, however, the software industry is
relying on them.
"Our view over all on modchips is that they are illegal infringing
devices, that where we find people engaged in the widespread
manufacturing and distribution of them, we and our members, individually
and collectively, are committed to doing what we can to shut down their
manufacturing and go after the distributors," said Doug Lowenstein,
president of the Interactive Digital Software Association.
Some advocates, however, say that while software piracy is illegal and
morally offensive, the mere act of modifying hardware should not be
illegal. "The most important dimension of this debate from our view is
that people should have the right to tinker with the stuff that they
own," said Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney at the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, a civil-liberties group in San Francisco.
"Others will say that this is about piracy and all that, but they forget
that the principle of tinkering with the stuff that you own was the
principle on which the entire personal computer industry was founded,"
he added. "This is basic business and basic science in the technology
world and we think that this right to tinker, this freedom to tinker,
remains legally protected."
For now, however, the federal government seems to agree with Mr.
Lowenstein. Last December, David M. Rocci, a 22-year-old from
Blacksburg, Va., pleaded guilty to a federal charge of conspiring to
import, market and sell modchips for the Xbox. In April, he was
sentenced to five months in prison and five months of home detention.
Simply from the standpoint of accessibility, the PlayStation 2 would
seem to be a more likely candidate for hacking. IDG, the technology
research firm, estimates that at the end of last year, 38.1 million
PlayStation 2 units were in use in Europe, North America and Japan
combined, compared with 6.7 million Xbox units in those regions.
In one sense, however, the hacking scene for PlayStation 2 is less
developed than the one for Xbox because there is less appetite for it.
Sony sells an official conversion kit for the PlayStation 2 that
includes a hard drive and allows that system to run the Linux operating
system, which in turn allows the system to run MP3's, movies,
spreadsheets or any other program or data that works under Linux. It is
relatively easy for Sony to embrace Linux because Sony, unlike
Microsoft, is not in the operating system business.
The PlayStation 2 hacking community seems focused on developing chips
that allow PlayStation 2 units to run illegal copies of games and games
meant for far-flung parts of the world. (For marketing reasons, many
PlayStation 2 games include regional coding, much as DVD's do.) In 2001,
Sony sued an Australian for selling modchips that allowed Australian
PlayStation 2 units to play games from other parts of the world. After
the Australian government argued on the man's behalf, however, the
Federal Court of Australia last July ruled mostly against Sony.
Mr. von Lohmann said that Microsoft had not been particularly aggressive
in combating Xbox hackers but that Sony had actively fought them. A Sony
spokeswoman did not respond this week to requests for comment about the
company's approach to hackers.
For its part, Microsoft, through its public relations agency, indicated
that it believed Xbox hackers were a relatively small band. "Aside from
a set of hobbyists," it said, "the vast majority of Xbox owners are not
focused on this niche."
But those who are appear quite focused indeed. By e-mail, Mr. Steil, the
German leader of the Xbox Linux project, declared: "In very simple
words: The Xbox is cheaper than a PC. The Xbox is a lot smaller than a
PC. The Xbox looks better (next to a TV set). The Xbox is more silent.
Therefore it's an ideal Linux computer in the living room."
That was probably not the vision Mr. Gates had in mind.
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