Hackers in BRW

I have another column in this week’s BRW on Apple TV and the hackers that are making it better. It is reproduced over the fold.

Cursors, foiled again

Corporations must learn to harness hackers who modify their technology rather than fear or ignore them.

There is a traditional view of how products are designed. It is simple. A firm gets an idea, designs the product and sells it. It may conduct some market research to see what features consumers want. But it makes the call of what is added and what is left out. The firm owns, is responsible and wears the profit hit if it gets it wrong. Clean and final.

Enter the hacker. Not the hacker who infiltrates the security of major corporate and government computer systems but the hacker who infiltrates the hidden software in products they have purchased. The hacker’s goal is to see what they can modify. If the modification is a good one, they benefit and, indeed, others too as they post the ‘hack’ on the net. If it is not, then so be it. But, in this world, the firm who sold the product no longer has complete control over its features.

This has been illustrated in the last month with the launch of Apple TV. The intended use of this device is to hook it up to your TV much as you would a DVD player and then, using a wireless network in the home, stream music, photos and videos to it to watch from the convenience of your living room. All in all not terribly exciting but some people might want that.

Within a week of its launch, hackers had bought it and modified it. The first thing they did was open it up and add storage. Apple had provided 40GB of space making it a glorified but not portable iPod. Hackers quadrupled that. The Apple TV box, despite being a stripped down computer, was operated by a simple remote. Hackers added a keyboard and mouse.

But there was more. Software was modified to allow the device to play non-iTunes formats (including the Apple competitor, Joost), control other computers on your home network, work on non-HD televisions, provide web feeds to read the news and blogs and, finally, making Apple TV work as a Mac computer – a very cheap one at that. And there are pushes on the way for more including a DVD player with bounties offered for successful hacks.

All this is freely available but requires a little expertise to implement for the average consumer. Nonetheless, the hacks significantly improved the product’s capabilities and so quickly that it makes one wonder why Apple itself didn’t do them. Of course, not providing a leg up to competition and potential technical issues are high on the list of explanations there. But, at the very least, Apple probably expected all this to happen.

In the modern world, firms no longer have full control over their product design. In many respects that is a good thing. Consumers can respond and use the products and even profit from innovating. But with all this is a loss in responsibility. No one is really accountable for issues arising from these hacks. Apple places dire warnings on its packaging against such moves in voiding warranties. The hackers themselves are not commercial enough to be liable. And so consumers are left on their own. The features are not a free option but potentially a risky one.

Nonetheless, they could drive customer demand for the product. In Australia, the iTunes choices on videos, in particular, are limited, even though Apple TV costs more here. So you are left with music and photos (who needs a TV) and a smattering of video podcasts and movie trailers. The hacks open up the possibilities and may make the product attractive for this market where Apple has otherwise turned its head. Apple wins and saves itself the trouble of dealing with copyright owners on a local content deal.

This sort of thing is not unprecedented in this part of the world. And TV gets people going it appears. Faced with the prospect of no local sales of Tivo (the near magical digital video recorder) and also no recorder that allowed one to easily record Foxtel programs, hackers took the US product and modified it for Australia. Years before Foxtel got its act together for a similar thing, Tivo was readily available and thousands of users were happily using it. And the winner was Foxtel, with extra subscription fees going straight into their pockets.

MIT’s Eric von Hippel sees all of this as a process of democratising innovation and it has gone on for decades in many industries. With open standards and capable consumers, it seems like it will continue to thrive for years to come. The task for corporations is how to harness this rather than to ignore or cringe at the prospects. After all, what they customer wants, they should get, right?

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