McKenzie Wark on Sun, 13 Jul 2003 02:02:10 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Xbox hacking

As William Gibson famously said, "the street
finds its own use for things." I find this
story interesting on so many levels. Tactics
for the underdeveloped world, the irony of
Linux and Microsoft coming together, the
inevitable tightening of the screws of IP
that will no doubt ensue...

Some Xbox Fans Microsoft Didn't Aim For

New York Times, July 10, 2003

FTER 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 used for?

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

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 issues.

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" Xbox units.)

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

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.

                   ... we no longer have roots, we have aerials ...

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