Have you ever thought about Jailbreaking your iPhone? Or homebrewing your PSP or Wii? Did you hack your Android phone to get the latest updates? Whether you have or not, there are many out there that have. But why do they do that? And what is this jailbreak/homebrew you speak of? This article aims to expose what hacking products is all about and possibly why manufacturers are missing the point.
Manufacturers create limitations
When creating products, manufacturers build in mechanisms which prevent or limit capability of their products. This is done for a number of reasons:
- Safety: Prevent the system from being misused where it will perform outside safety parameters (e.g. “overclocking“)
- Feature Control – They want to limit the functionality of the product – possibly so they can enable it later or introduce the feature in some other way/update (i.e. controlling how features are deployed)
- Security – They want to limit access to the system to prevent tampering, bypassing of existing functions or plugging in extra ones.
- Prevent Piracy – They want to prevent the ability to play pirated games, etc. on the device (typical of games consoles)
Hackers are evil, aren’t they?
Or so the Media would have you believe. Yes there are some rotten apples for sure, but there are also those out there that hack for good intention too. Generally speaking the purpose of hacking is to bypass or overcome one or more of the reasons mentioned above (Safety, Feature Control, Security, Piracy) but there are other reasons too; some want the notoriety that they were the first to break into a system. Others hack because they feel the limitations put on the product are restrictive.
You may be a hacker and not realise it…
Consider the humble MP3 player. A number of factors lead to its’ success such as portability, capacity, size, durability and also the fact it let you hack your CD collection by ripping any of the tracks into the MP3 format and then uploading them to any one of your MP3 devices.
Cars also have had many changes which have meant they too are hackable. Every car I’ve owned since 2001 has had the ability for its’ Electronic Control Unit (ECU) to be modified to either get more performance, economy – or both. On top of that, the burgeoning after-market business will allow you to replace many parts of your standard car, either to make it personalized to you, or to enhance it in some way shape or form.
The war on the home electronics front
Games consoles and phones have long been a target for hacking. When the original Microsoft Xbox came out it was soon hacked and people started to change it in ways it had never been designed for. A popular hack was to convert it to a media center by adding a larger hard drive, installing Xbox Media Center and an optical out – creating a true home theatre PC experience on the cheap (though not HD). The Xbox was (for its’ generation), a market leader and the ability to hack it made it more desirable over Sony’s PS2 product.
With the introduction of the Xbox 360, Microsoft decided to increase the security so that the system couldn’t be hacked so easily. As with most things, an exploit was found which allowed hackers to bypass the (local) security. There are also various exploits for the Sony PS3 which allow the user to take control over what happens to their console.
Going back to our Apple iPhone as well as the iPad and Android phones, people realize that these are very powerful platforms which have been (in their eyes) restricted by the manufacturer in some way and so will actively seek to hack and bypass security as they see it as their right that if they own the product, they should have it their way for their needs. As such exploits and hacks were found which allowed users to do what they wanted with the devices.
So why not just build “hackability” into Products?
Would manufacturers allowed “hacking” affects desirability? Going back to the Xbox 360, Microsoft created a marketplace for people to re-skin their console with plastic shells that could be purchased. Whilst a good marketing idea, the actual desirability for this kind of hacking is minimal. The same goes for cars – the manufacturer often offers additional accessories with the vehicle which gives some degree of personalization (or a perception of it), yet in reality many folks will buy after-market parts instead.
So there are desirable hacks as well as non-desirable ones?
Absolutely! Some hacks make systems better for the end user – whether it be speed, appearance, extensibility. Simply put, manufacturing a product which has potential exploits to hacks or customize it in some way, shape or form, but that way isn’t documented, isn’t officially supported, perhaps is communicated as “we do not approve these changes” – but is coincidentally allowing the exploit could increase its’ chance to be desired.
Or to put it another way; if you let your product be hackable but you as a manufacturer do not condone it, you may increase your chance of market share because it’s viewed as underground and therefore increases its’ “coolness” factor – and thus your product gets notoriety.
So it’s easy right? Just make everything “hackable”…
What would happen if Apple offered a hacking tool for the iPhone that was charged a premium for? Someone would write a hack that did the same thing for free and they’d be the hero. Perhaps off the back of that Apple would offer them a job to help prevent other / hacks, etc. so everyone wins, but ultimately the manufacturer hack tool could be viewed as too corporate and so people would try to work they way around it.
Again putting it simply, officially endorsing a hack doesn’t always win votes.
So what does that mean for the consumer?
There are pro’s and cons for the consumer with hacking a product; it can remove manufacturer liability, cause the life of the product to be shortened – or even break the product. On the other hand it can help make the product fulfill its’ potential.
Similarly the United States military showcased 200 networked Sony PS3’s that they use as one huge parallel processor. Hardly what the system was designed for but absolutely perfect for its’ capability.
If you’re thinking of going out and hacking every product you own that is hackable, don’t. Stop and think about what would happen if you did apply a hack – would you lose your warranty? Could you fix it if it broke? That being said there is good cause for some hacks, so definately research based off your needs and the risks.
For any manufacturers out there reading this… could this be your new marketing ploy?!