Sony really has no tolerance when it comes to piracy on their systems. Whilst in the past they were mostly disinterested (since there was little they could do about it) their reaction to the current state of piracy on the Playstation 3 has been nothing short of full fledged war on those who’d seek to get something for nothing. Still it seems like their efforts might be misplaced as the damage has already been done and any methods taken to try and contain it merely serve as a Streisand Effect, further publicising the efforts of those they’d seek to contain. Still for all the hubbub that’s going on I personally believe that it’s a storm in a teacup, with both sides making a bigger deal of this than it really is.
The roots of this entire debacle can be traced back to one curious hacker, Geohot. Just on a year ago he released details of a hack that basically enabled him full control over the PS3 when it was in OtherOS mode, opening the door for much better homebrew applications that could take full advantage of the PS3’s power. Sony, to their discredit, overreacted to this by removing OtherOS as a feature in the next update. In all honesty Geohot’s initial hack was barely a threat to anyone as it required a very high level of knowledge and the guts to crack open your PS3 and solder switches across vital components. Removing said feature then triggered many other hacker groups to start having a shot at breaking open the PS3, and 8 month’s later we saw the rise of the PS3 jailbreaks.
Most recently however the whole scene went into overdrive after the hacker team fail0verflow released details on how to recover many of the private keys that Sony uses to verify game discs and other critical GameOS functions. It didn’t take too long after that for Geohot to release the root key which, in essence, cracked the entire system wide open. Whilst I’ve yet to dive into the nitty gritty myself it would seem that this round of hacks requires no crazy dongles or anything that’s above the level of the average Windows user. A quick look over some of my old hacking haunts shows there’s quite a spread of tools available, even a nifty little program that can point your PS3 to a share where you can store all your games, neat. Sony has been quick to come down on these hacks and the hackers have been even quicker in response, showing that the arms race Sony is playing against the masses will never be won.
The thing is though that whilst this enables piracy on a console that has been immune to it for the majority of its life it’s far from being the catastrophe that Sony seems to think it will be. The PC and the Xbox have both suffered from rampant piracy from their earliest days and the industry continues to flourish in spite of them. The fact is that anyone who would be solely pirating games isn’t a lost customer in the first place and many of them would’ve steered clear of the PS3 because of that. Heck even after I modded my Xbox so I could play some “backed up” games I ended up reverting it back simply because I wanted to play online and I didn’t play any of those games for longer than an hour. The simple fact is that a game I’m not willing to part with the money for is a game I wouldn’t play anyway, and I’m sure that’s common across most console owners.
Piracy is often the excuse used for all sorts of draconian measures that publishers use to try and protect their investments. Time and time again however it has been shown that users who can’t pirate aren’t instantly converted into paying customers, they simply do without and move onto another source of free entertainment. Piracy, on the surface at least, appears to be a much worse problem than it actually is and whilst the PS3 may now be wide open for all those who want to exploit it I doubt we’ll see publishers pulling releases for the platform any time soon. Personally I’d love to be able to rip my library of games to a hard drive so I could have them all on tap whenever I wanted them, but with Sony’s rampant anti-piracy stance it looks like I’ll have to forgo that dream until I don’t want to use my PS3 online anymore.
And I don’t think that’s going to be any time soon, either.
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 readily admit that I’m a bit of a tinkerer. There’s something really enjoyable about taking something you bought and squeezing extra functionality out of it, especially if it unlocks something that no product currently fits. I remember after having my PlayStation Portable for a while that I heard of the many great things that could be done with it, so I set out to mod it. A couple days later I had it streaming live video from my PC over our wireless network which was quite an impressive feat back in those days. Today the device hacker scene is alive and well on almost any platform that can be exploited leading to a game of cat and mouse between the creators of said devices and those who would seek to exploit them.
Now I’m not going to be naive and pretend like there aren’t nefarious motives behind parts of the hacking scene. Indeed the main motivator for quite a lot of hacks that enable people to unlock certain bits of functionality is usually done in aid of pirating legitimate software. In fact for the Xbox 360 the only hack available is arguably only for pirating software, as Microsoft’s hard line on banning users who do it shows. Still the never ending game of cat and mouse that companies play with the recreational hacking crowd doesn’t appear to make much fiscal sense on the surface as the man hours required to try and protect such systems always appear to fail with little more than a couple weeks from a few skilled individuals.
Probably one of the platforms where this kind of behaviour is almost encouraged would be Android. For starters the entire system is open source so if you were so inclined you could write custom packages for it to unlock almost any functionality you wanted. It also seems that the vast majority of Android handset manufacturers only put mild roadblocks in the way of those seeking to gain root level privileges on the devices, akin to the CD in the drive checks of games of yesteryear. Still it seems that the trend may be shifting somewhat with the recent Droid X, touted as the best Android phone to date, employing some rather drastic moves to prevent end users from tampering with it:
Motorola has apparently locked down the phone to the point where any modification attempts — including “rooting” the phone to install unauthorized apps, or changing its firmware — could render it completely inoperable (or “bricked”). The only way to fix it is to return the phone to Motorola, reports the Android fansite MyDroidWorld.
The company is using a technology called eFuseto secure the device. It runs when the phone boots up, and it checks to make sure that the phone’s firmware, kernel information, and bootloader are legit before it actually lets you use the device. Here’s MyDroidWorld’s explanation:
If the eFuse failes to verify this information then the eFuse receives a command to “blow the fuse” or “trip the fuse”. This results in the booting process becoming corrupted and resulting in a permanent bricking of the Phone. This FailSafe is activated anytime the bootloader is tampered with or any of the above three parts of the phone has been tampered with.
Us device hackers know the risks when we go into them, it’s part of the fun! I remember when I was hacking my PSP for the first time I had to find files from a not-so-trustworthy source, a random I met on an IRC channel. Knowing fully well I could end up with a $400 paperweight I went ahead anyway and, luckily enough for me, it worked. However the trend towards vendors actively seeking to brick the phones should the user try to tamper with them feels like a kick in the teeth to me. Realistically it’s my hardware and what I do with it is my business and putting barriers in place just seems like a waste of both our time.
The argument can be made that they don’t want the average user attempting to do these kinds of things with their devices. There’s some logic to that as stopping the casual hacking crowd means that a good majority of the other nefarious activities will be thwarted as well. Additionally in this day and age the originators of the hack usually make it exceptionally easy to use like the Twilight Hackfor the Nintendo Wii which merely requires loading a save game, something everyone is capable of. Still most users are bright enough to know that what they’re doing is akin to taking a chainsaw to their device, something which the manufacturer will likely not appreciate nor cover under warranty.
Coming back to the piracy issue I still feel that this comes down to the perceived¹ value that customers are placing in the products being offered. The customers who are pirating your product aren’t the kind who are just going to up and pay for it if they can’t get it for free. Really you should be looking back on yourself to see why they’re pirating it as if it’s wildly successful with the pirates but not with legit customers it’s quite possible your product is priced too high or the channels you’re offering it through are too restrictive. I’ve been researching these markets for months now and it seems no matter how hard you try to ensure no one pirates your product you only end up hurting your paying customers, driving even more of them to those dastardly corners of the Internet where they pilfer your product for free.
In my mind there’s no question that the steps taken to thwart these would be hackers is not worth the time that’s put into them. For a platform like Android I actually believe these kinds of people actually help a great deal with the whole ecosystem of the platform, ensuring that power users get what they want whilst everyday users get dedicated experts to call upon at no cost to the original company. Who knows maybe I’ll change my tune when I start trying to extract money from the markets based on these platforms but if I do feel free to point at this post and lambast me for being an idiot, as I’ll be far too detached from reality at that point 😉
¹I have a habit of re-reading my old posts when I link to them and just noticed that I praised Ubisoft for taking the right direction when trying to combat pirates. After their last DRM farce I can’t really support them anymore, but the ideas in that post remain solid (I.E. increasing value with things that can’t be pirated).
Take any piece of modern hardware and guaranteed its locked down in one way or another to make sure it’s not used in a way that the vendor didn’t intend, expect or desire. Take Apple for example, they strictly control what can and can’t be run on their entire range of hardware products to make sure that their brand name isn’t tarnished (and they fight fervently when there’s even the slight hint that it might). Such restrictions give rise to the hacker community dedicated to unlocking the full potential of the hardware. To them it’s not so much the potential of having unrestricted access, more it is about the challenge that is presented with these restrictions and finding that loophole that lets them circumvent it.
To date nearly every major console and handled game device had been hacked into in at least some form. A couple days ago however the king of the unhackable hill, the Playstation 3, has apparently fallen from its perch:
I have read/write access to the entire system memory, and HV level access to the processor. In other words, I have hacked the PS3. The rest is just software. And reversing. I have a lot of reversing ahead of me, as I now have dumps of LV0 and LV1. I’ve also dumped the NAND without removing it or a modchip.
3 years, 2 months, 11 days…thats a pretty secure system
Took 5 weeks, 3 in Boston, 2 here, very simple hardware cleverly applied, and some not so simple software.
As noted in the quote above its been quite a long time coming for such a hack to appear. So long in fact that I doubted that it was legitimate considering that the site itself is extremely new (well under a month) and was proclaiming something that had been tried before and failed spectacularly. My mind was changed when I checked out who the hacker was, George Hotz, who’s claim to fame before his PS3 shenanigans was unlocking the iPhone. So his street cred checks out.
I put off posting about this for a couple days so I could glean a little bit more info about the whole thing before posting about it. The hack itself doesn’t appear to be too complicated however what is going to be complicated is making anything of it. Whilst the original “phat” PS3s were quite capable of running Linux (albeit quite horribly, I don’t even bother with my install anymore) many of the higher level functions, like access to the full set of GPU instructions and the SPEs, was disabled. This meant that anything running on the PS3 that wasn’t sanctioned by Sony was inherently crippled. Getting access to these extra bits of functionality would make allow people to create games without forking over for Sony’s developer kit ($10,000 FYI). You can see why they tried so hard to keep people from doing such a thing.
There’s also the darker side to this hack appearing: piracy. Sure there are legitimate reasons for blowing open access to a console like this but for the most part any successful cracking of a game console has ultimately lead to a rampant piracy scene. Whilst it would be difficult to judge the actual financial damage to Sony and the publishers who have games on the PS3 it would still be there, and you can bet your bottom dollar that it would be cited as a reason for any bad financial quarters. GeoHot’s hack is a far cry from this however, so there’s still a long time before any real piracy scene appears for the PS3.
Still I can’t help but wonder, will anyone really bother? A typical game on the PS3 can be anywhere from 10GB to 25GB something which, especially in Australia, would be rather hard to swallow when your download cap is a mere 75GB such as mine. Additionally with many games appearing cross platform you’re really only going to be pirating the exclusives and if you bought a PS3 its not really worth your trouble just to pirate those. Would you really spend the cash for a blu-ray burner, discs and bandwidth in order to play a few games a year? I’m guessing not.
So whilst I was initially excited at the prospect of some intrepid hacker finally cracking the PS3 code it wore off pretty quickly. With my secret addiction to collector’s editions that have things you can’t pirate still running rampant I have no inclination to pirate games on my PS3, nor do I have a need for yet another computer in my house (there’s 5 in the same room as the PS3, I’ll be damned if I need the PS3 to do their jobs). With this hack taking so long to come out I can’t help but feel that the majority of PS3 owners are in the same boat, happily residing themselves to never thinking about home brew or piracy on the PS3.
Still I’ve been wrong before so I’ll be watching the developments pretty closely. It certaintly has made for interesting reading at the very least 🙂