Thursday, 20 January 2011

Big Business vs Hackers

Some times I just feel so damn old. I remember the days when I bought a computer and was able to develop software for it - no questions asked. In fact, back in the 8-bit era the computer came with a version of BASIC built in to allow you to get started.

This was how many future programming stars got their start (not to mention wannabe indie devs like myself). Even hacking things together for consoles wasn't a problem (not that the consoles of the day were really worth playing with too much). In fact, it wasn't unknown for programming kits to be released for consoles - even the NES got a version of basic!

That was then. Now, however, it seems that some manufacturers are willing to do anything to stop you playing with the hardware that you have bought from them. Sony is a case in point.

Sony don't want you to make games yourself for the PS3 (PlayStation 3) or PSP (PlayStation Portable). Their logic goes something like this: if you allow any code to run, then that code could be pirated software. Pirated software is bad, so we won't allow it.

Sony used to allow users to run Linux on the PS3 (albeit without full access to all the hardware). This allowed you to run Linux versions of homebrew games and emulators, as well as converting the PS3 into a low cost Linux workstation. Sadly this functionality was taken away at the point where people managed to get access to the "restricted" parts of the console. Never ran pirated software in your life, but want to run Linux on a PS3? Tough luck.

The "Other OS" option was not only removed from new consoles, but from existing ones too. This has led to a situation where "hackers" have been trying to find ways of restoring the missing functionality, and whilst doing so have discovered something important, namely the "key" used to sign executable programs. This is basically a code that the console looks for when a program tries to run: if the "key" is correct then the game or program will launch, if not then it doesn't.

This is bad news for Sony - as it now means that homebrew software can be made to look like Sony's own software and the console cann't tell the difference. According to Sony this can also be used to enable pirated software to run.

To make matters worse (for Sony) the PS3 also contains the key for signing PSP software, so now homebrew can run on the portable too. Although in theory Sony could change the key, in practice this would invalidate all software for the PS3 (and PSP) - in other words all existing software would be inoporable beit on CD, downloaded from the Sony store, or installed by those naughty homebrew people.

Sony's response to this has been to take legal action against the hackers. In the meantime software to allow users to self-sign PSP code has already been released and ready-signed emulators and homebrew games that run on unmodified PSPs are already available (with more appearing each day).

What can Sony hope to gain from their legal action? I wish I had the answer to that one. Sadly the cat is now well and truly out of the bag - and no amount of legal posturing is going to put it back in.

It is now only a matter of time before Linux is available again on an unmodified PS3, and this time there are unlikely to be any restrictions on what parts of the hardware it can access.

In my opinion it appears that Sony's heavy-handed response to the hacking / homebrew community has backfired in spectacular fashion - and the damage that Sony are now doing to the PlayStation brand is immense.

Could things have worked out better by using a different approach?

Indeed they could. Microsoft (you know, the Big Evil Corporation) have been doing a lot of things right lately. Let's take Kinect for example.

Not long after the Kindle was released hackers found ways of making the device work on PCs (both Windows and Linux based). Although Microsoft initially grumbled about this, they had a change of heart and are now in the process of releasing a development kit for it.

Even more recently hackers found a way to enable the equivalent of unsigned applications to run on the new Windows Phone 7. In essense, Microsoft were in the same situation as Sony with the PS3 / PSP.

So did they sue? No.

Did they create a media firestorm decrying the hackers as evil monsters intend on ruining the platform? No.

Did they invite the hackers to a meeting to discuss methods of enabling homebrew software to run on Windows Phone 7? Yes, they did.

Not only that, they also provided the hackers with custom made t-shirts that read "I was the first to jailbreak Windows Phone 7 and all I got was this lousy t-shirt." The upshot of the meeting is that the Windows Phone 7 jailbreak apps have been removed whilst the official homebrew tools are developed by Microsoft. The community is happy as they will (eventually) be able to write their own stuff on Windows 7 Phone. Microsoft is also happy because they are still in control of the phone, and have had some damn good publicity into the bargain.

This is the best advert that Windows Phone 7 could ever have - namely "we want you to be part of our community," as opposed to Sony with "do as we tell you or we'll sue you into oblivion."

Who would you rather deal with?

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