I used to think I wasn’t your typical consumer, what with my inclination for all things tech especially those with a dedicated modding community. Pretty much every device I have in my house has been modified in some way so that I can do things that the manufacturer didn’t intend for me to do, extending the life of many of those devices considerably. Whilst consumers like me used to be small in number, especially when compared to the total market, it seems like ever since Android exploded in popularity that the modding community is now a force to be reckoned with. So much so that even handset manufacturers are beginning to bow to their demands.
I started thinking along these lines back when some of my close mates were talking about Motorola’s super handset, the Atrix. Feature wise its an amazing phone with enough processing power under the hood to give netbooks a good run for their money. A few of my mates were wholly sold on getting one once they were released however reports began came in that the boot loader on the Atrix was locked, removing the possibility of being able to run custom ROMs and some of the more useful features. It really shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise since Motorola has a policy of locking their devices (which is why the Xoom’s unlocked bootloader was odd) but still many people were sold on the device prior to finding out its limitations. The modding community didn’t just vote with their wallets this time around however, they made sure Motorola was aware of just how many customers they were losing.
Motorola, for reasons unknown, decided to put up a poll on their Facebook page asking their fans what apps they’d most like to see their developers working on next. The response was overwhelming with nearly every request being for them to unlock the bootloader. Not a week after these poll results went viral did Motorola issued a statement that they’d be changing their policy to allow users to unlock handsets, as long as the carriers approved it. Whilst that’s yet to happen for any of their current handsets (they’ve alluded to late this year) it did show that the modding community has become very important to the handset manufacturers, more so than I had ever thought they would.
HTC, long known for there awesomely hackable handsets, seems to be going in the opposite direction to Motorola seemingly ignoring the lessons to be learned from them. Whilst they had never made it as easy as say the Google Nexus lines of phones they were always able to be unlocked should you be willing to take the risk. Back in march I wrote about how their Thunderbolt handset was by far the most locked down device we had seen from HTC ever, warning that doing so would be akin to poisoning the well they drink from. More recently it came to light that two of their newest handsets, the Sensation and EVO 3D, would also come with locked bootloaders similar to that of the Thunderbolt. They have since come back saying that they’ll be working to make their handsets more hacker friendly once again, although many are quick to point out that they might not have much say in that matter.
You see the unfortunate truth is that all handsets are at the mercy of the carriers as without them they’re basically useless. Google encountered this very problem when they released the Nexus One as they had to offer both the subsidized version through the carriers as well as their original vision of selling it just through their online store. Indeed they had originally wanted to sell the Nexus One for as little as $99 unlocked paying the subsidy themselves. That plan didn’t last very long once they started talking to the carriers and the best option they could offer was the $179 version with a 2 year contract, a far cry from their original vision. So whilst I applaud Motorola and HTC’s commitment to keeping handsets hacker friendly the carriers could very well scuttle the idea long before it hits implementation, but only time will tell with that.
Honestly I’m very surprised at the recent turn of events that has led to these quick about faces from the big handset manufacturers. Sure I believed that the modding communities were catalysts for the success that they had enjoyed but I didn’t think they had enough sway to get a corporation to change its wicked ways. It shows that a decent percentage of people are committed to the idea of openness and freedom to use their devices as they see fit and whilst it might be an uphill battle against the carriers we at least have some powerful allies on our side, maybe even enough to make Google’s original Nexus vision come true one day.
Space travel is on the rough end of the stick when it comes to physics. To get ourselves out of the massive gravity well that keeps us from travelling to the stars we have to expend vast amounts of energy, usually in the form of a chemical rocket. It’s a tried and true system however with chemical rockets powering every single mission that has left the confines of earth. There has been talk of many other forms of propulsion that could potentially perform a lot better than our trusty chemical companions but thanks to their fuel being of the nuclear variety they’ve never made it past the theoretical stage. Still for all their successes chemical rockets still have their draw backs, not least of which is the ungodly amount of fuel they use.
Take a look at any rocket and you’ll notice that the vast majority of it is taken up by a single component, the fuel tank. Whilst the actual cost of the fuel is a rounding error when compared to the cost of developing the rocket itself the fuel still makes up the vast majority of the wet mass of the craft, usually 85% or more. To put in in perspective the biggest rocket ever built, the Saturn V, weighed in at a massive 3 million kg when it was on the launch pad but only delivered 120,000 kg to low earth orbit (with 45,000kg eventually reaching the moon). A mere 4% of the total launch weight made it out of earth’s gravity, a truly staggering figure. This is more commonly referred to as the mass ratio.
It should come as no surprise then that the limiting factor for many space missions is weight related. As payloads get bigger so does the rockets and the amount of fuel required to lift them into orbit. This puts an upper limit on how big rockets can get before the amount of fuel required becomes unmanageable and instead many missions will favor multiple, smaller launches in order to get the required payload launched. The International Space Station is a good example of this as its current mass, some 420,000 kg, would have required a rocket of unimaginable size to launch all once. Instead it has been assembled in numerous smaller flights each adding around 20,000 kg each time. Most missions do not have this kind of luxury however and their designs represent a trade off between capabilities and the maximum launch weight they can have.
Most notably this affects missions that want to reach further than earth orbits, such as missions to other planets. Since they have to carry all the fuel required to get into orbit and to get them started towards their destination the payloads they can deliver are far smaller than they could be. Whilst we’ve still been able to do an amazing amount of science and exploration with such vehicles it’s still one of the most limiting factors that keeps more ambitious missions (read: ones with us humans in them) from being realized. There is however one ingenious solution to this problem, and that’s refueling in orbit.
Whilst the notion of flying just fuel up into orbit might seem like a strange idea it’s one that will enable subsequent missions to be far more capable. Indeed the cost of carrying several tons of fuel for pushing out past earth’s orbit adds many times that in launch mass. Thus craft that can refuel once in orbit can be significantly heavier at launch (since they’re not carrying the fuel) and can then fuel up for their trip beyond earth. The idea originally started to get traction back when Obama announced his plan for space exploration back in early 2010 and it seems that it’s finally going to become a reality:
Space explorers who need to top off the fuel tanks on the way to the moon or Mars may soon get their orbital refueling stations. NASA has put out the call for a $200 million mission to show how to store and transfer rocket propellants in space.
NASA wants to look specifically at liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, which have powered the main engines of the space shuttle and several commercial rockets. Its proposal calls for “zero boil-off storage” of liquid oxygen, and at least “minimal boil-off storage” of liquid hydrogen.
The proposal comes with the promise of $200 million for the company who wins the opportunity to build the station with an additional $100 million should they be able to demonstrate significant benefits for the additional investment. Whilst there are already companies working on these sorts of ideas NASA’s proposal goes far beyond what they’re currently capable of and is being built with the vision for larger missions beyond earth rather than refueling satellite’s station keeping fuel reserves. The proposal could also have flow on benefits to companies like the United Launch Alliance and SpaceX who could design future crafts around the idea of being able to refuel on orbit.
If we want to get serious about extending our presence beyond our home world (and we’re too afraid to use nuclear rockets) then orbital refueling stations are the key to realizing that vision. We’ve started to make the first steps to commoditizing space travel and the next logical step is to start unlocking access to other parts of our solar system, both for science and the simple prospect of exploring the unknown. Whilst this idea might not be realized tomorrow its a helluva lot more real today than it was yesterday and humanity is one step closer to taking our rightful place amongst the stars.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Microsoft was never a major player in the smartphone space. Most people had never really heard of or seen a smartphone until Apple released the iPhone and the market really didn’t heat up until a couple years after that fact. However if you were to go all the way back to 2004 you’d find they were extremely well positioned, capturing 23% of the total market share with many analysts saying that they would be leader in smartphone software by the end of the decade. Today however they’re the next to last option for anyone looking for a smartphone thanks wholly to their inertia in responding to the incoming threats from Apple and Google.
Microsoft wasn’t oblivious to this fact but their response took too long to come to market to save any of the market share they had previously gained. Their new product, Windows Phone 7, is quite good if you consider it on the same level as Android 1.0 and the first iPhone. Strangely enough it also suffers some of the problems that plagued the earlier revisions of its competitors products had (like the lack of copy and paste) but to Microsoft’s credit their PR and response time on the issue is an order of magnitude better. They might have come too late into the game to make a significant grab with their first new offering but as history has shown us Microsoft can make a successful business even if it takes them half a decade of losses to catch up to the competition (read:the Xbox).
More recently though I’ve noticed a shift in the way Microsoft is operating within their mobile space. Traditionally, whilst they’ve been keen to push adoption for their platform through almost any means necessary, they’ve been quick to stand against any unsanctioned uses of their products. You can see this mentality in action with their Xbox department who’s fervently fought any and all means to run homebrew applications on their consoles. Granted the vast majority of users modding their consoles do so for piracy reasons so their stance is understandable but recent developments are starting to show that they might not be adverse to users running homebrew applications on their devices.
ChevronWP7 was the first (and as far as I know, only) application to allow users to to jailbreak their WP7 devices in order to be able to load arbitrary applications onto them. Microsoft wasn’t entirely happy with it’s release but didn’t do anything drastic in order to stop its development. They did however announce that the next update to WP7 would see it disabled, much like Apple does with their iOS updates, but they did something that the others haven’t ever done before, they met with the ChevronWP7 team:
After two full days of meetings with various members of the Windows Phone 7 team, we couldn’t wait to share with everyone some results from these discussions.
To address our goals of homebrew support on Windows Phone 7, we discussed why we think it’s important, the groups of people it affects, its direct and indirect benefits and how to manage any risks.
With that in mind, we will work with Microsoft towards long-term solutions that support mutual goals of broadening access to the platform while protecting intellectual property and ensuring platform security.
Wait, what? In the days gone by it wouldn’t have been out of place for Microsoft to send out a cease and desist letter before unleashing a horde of lawyers to destroy such a project in its infancy. Inviting the developers to your headquarters, showing them the roadmap for future technologies and then allying with them is down right shocking but shows how Microsoft has come to recognise the power of the communities that form around the platforms they develop. In all respects those users of ChevronWP7 probably make up a minority of WP7 users but they’re definitely amongst the most vocal users and potentially future revenue generators should they end up distributing their homebrew into the real world. Heck they’re even reaching out to avid device hacker Geohot since he mentioned his interest in the WP7 platform, offering him a free phone to get him started.
The last few years haven’t been kind to Microsoft in the mobile space and it appears that they’re finally ready to take their medicine so that they might have a shot at recapturing some of their former glory. They’ve got an extremely long and hard fight ahead of them should they want to take back any significant market share from Apple or Google, but the last couple months have shown that they’re willing to work with their users and enthusiasts to deliver products that they and hopefully the world at large will want to have. My next phone is shaping up to be a WP7 device simply because the offering is just that good (and development will be 1000x easier) and should Microsoft continue their recent stint of good behaviour I can only see it getting better and better.
I’ve always been one to try and make whatever technology I’ve bought do something it wasn’t originally intended for. Mostly this is because I want to unlock some of the hidden value that the technology has or enable some functionality that had been disabled by the manufacturer. You can then imagine my excitement when my wife’s parents gave us a Navman MY60T for christmas as whilst I wasn’t 100% sure what underlying operating system it had on it I figured it would be either Android or Windows CE and there are plenty of cool things I could do with either. So not a day after getting it I had secured myself a memory card and began a furious google search to see what could be done with this little device.
Initially I couldn’t find much as this particular model is relatively new. Still figuring that most models don’t change too much I widen my search to try and catch hacks that worked on previous models. After an hour or so I came across an application called MioPocket which appeared to be a wholesale replacement for the underlying operating system. After looking around for a while I discovered a forum dedicated to this software and saw that the community was alive and well, so I decided to give it a try.
Installing MioPocket on the MY60T appeared to be a pretty simple affair. After copying across the needed files to my SD card and creating the required folder (the folder name for the MY60T is SEEKER2_T500E) I restarted my device and was presented with the MioPocket install screen. I ran MioPocket and it appeared to install without a hitch, triggering a reboot of my device. However when it started back up again I recieved an error “Application MortScript.exe encountered a serious error and must shut down” and my Navman froze. Removing the SD card and rebooting the device allowed it to come good again but I was unfortunately unable to use MioPocket.
I searched the GPSPassion forums for a good few hours trying to find a solution to my problem. Most of the posts I found relating to this error appeared to be fixed in current releases and attempting to replicate those changes didn’t seem to make much of a difference. Since I didn’t have much of a clue of how MioPocket was strung together (apart from it being a Windows CE application) I posted up my problems and hoped I’d hit someone else who’d had the same issue and managed to resolve it.
Luckily not a day later did a user get back to me with the required solution. All that was required was to delete the toolhelp.dll files in all the folders on the SD card apart from one, the Windows folder. Doing so allowed my device to install and boot MioPocket successfully. A quick test showed that some applications refused to run (although I didn’t thoroughly test it) but for the most part it was fine, allowing me to run all sorts of weird and wonderful programs on my new found toy. Talking with one of my friends (who was one of the fortunate people to have an i-Mate JasJam back when they were hot) revealed that I could also get Warcraft 2 and Doom running on there if I was so inclined.
So after all that effort is it worth unlocking your GPS so you can run other programs on it? For most people probably not as whenever you’re going to be using your GPS the manufacturer’s included software will more than suffice. However unlocking it can provide extra features that might come in handy like the ability to load in eBooks or a simple calculator. Probably those who will get the most out of such hacks would be the modding community as these devices are excellent value for what they provide. I know I would’ve preferred a device like this to the $450 TV screen I bought for my car almost 5 years ago. So if you’ve got a GPS lying around and an hour or two to spare MioPocket could well be worth a look in, especially if you’ve got that hacker mentality.