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Mad Xbox Hacking

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My son has an Xbox – he likes it already, but with this information he may end up REALLY liking it:

    Microsoft’s strategy of selling the Xbox, its video game console, at a loss has wrought an unforeseen consequence. Some users increasingly view the Xbox as a cheap appliance easily rigged to operate as a fully functioning personal computer.

    Forget zapping aliens. Thousands are souping up their Xboxes to house movies and music, serve up Web pages, even write software. All it takes is a few hundred dollars and free tip sheets on the Web.

    Microsoft’s news Wednesday that it is dropping the price of a new Xbox $20 to $180 could drive more users to give it a try.

    ….But it does highlight the complexity of Microsoft’s struggles to make its products more secure. Because Xbox has so much capability, hackers have found it works well as:

    •Media hubs. Unlike a PC tower, the compact Xbox fits well next to the TV. By adding a start-up chip and a bigger hard drive, the Xbox morphs into an inexpensive media center for storing and playing a vast amount of games, movies and music. The TV screen serves as a monitor.

    XboxHacker.com, one of several Web sites packed with information on building Xbox media hubs, logs 8,000 visitors a week. “It’s like putting custom parts on your car,” says Webmaster Ken Robinson, a dockworker and amateur programmer in Federal Way, Wash.

    •Linux PCs. A group called the Xbox Linux Project advocates bypassing the Xbox’s Windows operating system and replacing it with the free Linux operating system. This lets users run a wide variety of free software. More than 150,000 copies of Linux for the Xbox have been downloaded, says founder Michael Steil, a computer science student from Munich, Germany.

    Linux is continually improved by volunteer programmers worldwide, and Microsoft considers it to be one of its biggest competitive threats. Steil says Linux Xboxes are being increasingly used as Web-site servers and to write new Linux programs.

    •Web tunnels. Microsoft charges gamers $4 a month to use Xbox Live, its fledgling online gaming service. It hopes to add more subscribers and raise the fee. But GameSpy.com and XBConnect.com offer free “tunneling” software that lets Xbox gamers interact with each other online using unmodified Xboxes. GameSpy President Jonathan Epstein said it took technicians just two days after the Xbox went on sale to create the first Xbox Internet tunnel. “We did it to show we’re really cool technologists,” Epstein says. While some Xbox hacking – copying games, for one – is illegal, tunneling, installing Linux and building media hubs fall into the gray area of what rights owners have to change a technology once they’ve paid for it.

I’m sure Microsoft hated seeing this article in USA Today: weep, Microsoft, weep.

    However, hackers like Andrew “Bunnie” Huang, who is pursuing a doctorate in electrical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, say Microsoft’s attempt to “lock down” the Xbox’s parts is a prelude to using similar techniques to keep PCs from running anything but Windows.

    ….”This is about fair use of something I bought with my hard-earned money,” Huang says. “If Microsoft can stop me from running whatever code I want on a given piece of hardware, it could then extend its software dominance into hardware and lock up the entire computer market.”

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About Eric Olsen