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Page last updated at 01:35 GMT, Saturday, 26 February 2011

Do you own the gadgets you buy?

By Alex Hudson and Marc Cieslak
BBC Click

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Marc Cieslak reports on the tech-heads who modify hardware and software

Spending £10,000 on a car means you own it and can modify it as you wish so why - after spending £250 on a games console or £350 on a new smartphone - can you not do anything you want with it?

"This is war" declared hacker and blogger George Hotz, better known as "Geohot" when Sony won a legal ruling designed to prevent PlayStation 3 (PS3) users opening up and adapting their consoles for additional uses with some of Hotz's computer code.

A new mobile phone "Xperia play" by Sony Ericsson
Geohot has promised to "hack" Sony Ericsson's new Xperia Play phone

Sony says these uses include playing pirated software and being able to cheat when playing multiplayer games.

Hotz claims his code, known as the "metldr key", was released to allow enthusiasts to make their own games - known as "home-brew" software.

The PS3 was the last of the major games consoles to be "hacked" and now Sony is rumoured to be developing a "hack-proof" system.

But if people are adapting consoles they have paid for legally, what is the big deal?

And if this is such a problem, why are major manufacturers opening up their products to different types of uses?

Microsoft is opening up its Kinect motion-sensing device to PC developers and Sony has a similar "aspiration" for its Move controller.

While Microsoft is keen to stress that Kinect "has not been modified or hacked in any way", it wants to "make it easier for the community to explore new ideas".

Academics at Warwick University have already found a more serious use for the Kinect device than just for games.

Microsoft hints at Kinect PC support

"We designed a robot that was going to work in disaster areas such as collapsed buildings that would be unsafe for the emergency services," says mechanical engineer Peter Crook.

"The Kinect system costs around £150 compared to our old system - that only offered us 2D depth perception - which cost around £3,000 so it's a massive reduction in costs."

And with official PC support for Kinect development, this sort of thing is likely to happen more often.

Claiming control

So where do you stand when buying a gaming console?

When you buy the hardware, you agree to a list of terms and conditions that - in effect - means you are licensing all the software from the manufacturer rather than owning it.

File photo dated 17/02/2010 of the Microsoft Logo on a computer screen
Microsoft has opened up its Kinect device to "create richer experiences"

"If you own a CD you don't own the right to copy that CD in lots of places," says James Binns, head of Edge International and PC gaming at Future Publishing.

"You own the physical form of the disk but not the content on it. It's the same with a video console.

"You own the plastic and the metal but the software that runs on it is different from the device you own and Sony can claim some control over that."

So what do the manufacturers want? A creative environment encouraging new ideas and applications for their devices or an absolute restriction on the uses for the hardware they provide?

It seems, so far at least, that the line is drawn when the modifications are anything that might be intended for anything more than personal use.

And certain critics of the big companies think that the barriers are in place to ring-fence profit.

'Legal' jailbreak

It's in the manufacturer's interest to keep it as it is," says Tony Horgan, Stuff magazine's reviews editor.

iPhone screen display
US law now allows the unlocking of mobile phones to change carriers

"I am surprised they have managed to get away with it for so long... If you're getting access to games you haven't paid for, then that's where the problem is but it's your right to modify a thing you own up until that point."

A recent ruling in the US set a legal precedent that modifying or "jailbreaking" phones is legal.

Federal regulators confirmed that copyright law was not applicable in helping manufacturers with "restrictive business models".

This is why George Hotz believes he is justified in what he has done with the PS3 and has promised to be the first to "crack" Sony Ericsson's new Xperia Play phone.

Hotz told G4TV that the "same precedent should apply [to consoles as to mobile phones]".

He said: "If you can jailbreak one closed system, why can't you jailbreak another?"

Cheating in games

But many companies see a threat to their products and their business. Apple argue that jailbreaking would "open the door" to hackers with "potentially catastrophic results".

Sony argues that, as shown by the "cheating" that sometimes occurs when playing games online, hacking ruins many users' gaming experience.

Digital Planet logo

"We have issued letters instructing people to remove custom firmware (a set of instructions programmed on the console) because it goes against the terms and conditions," says David Wilson, of PlayStation.

"This is as much for the benefit of our consumers as for us but we have to protect ourselves. We're trying to be equitable but we clearly don't want people opening the doorway to cheating in games or encouraging piracy.

"The reaction from the gaming community thus far seems to indicate that we are getting it right."

Sony had no comment on the specifics of the Hotz case.

So what can be done with gadgets bought for hundreds of pounds? Are they actually owned by the person who purchases them?

"If you want full freedom with a piece of kit, buy a PC because they are the most open platform you can get," says James Binns.

"But if you want to have the experience where somebody is taking control and supporting your online life and giving you really compelling games and helping connect gamers, you do have to give up some of the freedom to tinker with the piece of kit."



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