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Last Updated: Friday, 23 September 2005, 13:22 GMT 14:22 UK
Consoles to plug digital divides?
We need more computers for the developing world - so what about old games consoles, wonders technology analyst Bill Thompson.

Image of the Xbox 360
There will be a lot of old games consoles once the next generation comes
My son Max will be 13 in December and he wants an Xbox 360.

I know that other games consoles are available, and I am pretty agnostic about such things since I am not at all a serious games player.

But the Xbox has been his platform of choice for the last three years and he is desperate to upgrade.

Having agreed that it can be a combined birthday and Christmas present, the struggle is now on to find a shop that has any pre-order stock available, but I am willing to be persistent.

It also helps that he is happy to pay for games out of his savings.

Passing it on

I do not see anything wrong in wanting a new and improved games platform. I have been known to buy myself the occasional new computer from time to time.

But it is clear that once a shiny new system is in place below the TV the old one is unlikely to be used again, and this bothers me.

First it will go into the office, then it will be lost under a pile of paper or boxes. Eventually it might get handed down to a cousin or other relative, but they will not play it very much.

Max will not be alone in dumping his old console. I would imagine that most sales of the new system are going to be upgrades, so there will be millions of unwanted Xboxes around the world by the end of the year.

Bill Thompson
I would like to think that Max's old Xbox was helping someone else's child get online and change their life
And when Sony release the PlayStation 3 next year the same thing is going to happen with PlayStation 2.

There is a real danger that millions of them will end up either unused or, worse, being dumped. We are increasingly being prompted to pass our unwanted PCs but as far as I can see there are not any console recycling schemes.

Yet both the Xbox and the PlayStation 2 are just computers, and although they are shipped as dedicated games systems they can do other things.

Sony provides an official Linux for the PlayStation 2, based on the Red Hat kernel, and it comes with a collection of libraries to let games developers use the specialised graphics hardware that makes it such a good gaming platform.

You get a hard drive to fit into the console, a network card, keyboard and mouse and of course the software, on DVD.

There are Linuxes for the Xbox too, but they are unofficial and using them will void your warranty and means you cannot use Xbox Live.

You can plug both systems into a real computer monitor rather than a TV, as long as you use a "sync on green" monitor, so you do not have to put up with poor resolution, fuzzy fonts and irritating flicker.

It seems obvious that the best thing to do with all the unwanted consoles is turn them into real computers and send them to countries that need them.

Getting legal

There is only one small problem with this scheme: doing it properly is illegal thanks to laws which protect what are called "technological protection measures" like hardware-based security and DVD encryption.

The official Sony Linux for the PlayStation 2 includes copy protection that will not let you read CDs or DVDs you burn yourself, so you need to fit an illegal modification chip if you want to do this.

It is the same with the Xbox - you can get Linux running with a software-only fix, but the full system really needs changes to the hardware.

Sony and Microsoft have good reasons not to want people to mess with their hardware in markets where they make vast amounts of money selling games.

Even though I would argue against laws that stop owners from doing whatever they want with hardware they actually own, I can appreciate both sides of the argument.

But when a games machine has reached the end of its useful life we should not have to junk it just because the original manufacturer objects to turning it into something useful.

Image of Sony PlayStation 2
Old consoles could be adapted and recycled to get people online
Creative Commons is a non-profit organisation that is trying to find new ways to encourage creativity and sharing within the framework of existing copyright law.

Last year it published a special version of their license that allows people in developing nations, as listed by the United Nations, to use works freely while limiting their commercial exploitation in developed countries.

It is an excellent idea, because it means that I can, for example, let newspapers in Bangladesh reuse my articles without paying, but insist that German publications cough up.

And it can be applied to any copyrightable work, including computer programs.

So why don't Microsoft, Sony and the other console manufacturers make it easy to turn their games systems into useful general purpose computers and announce that they are happy to have the hardware modified and new software installed, provided the resulting systems are used outside the developed world?

A few million extra computers could make a real difference in schools and colleges in Africa or elsewhere, and I would like to think that Max's old Xbox was helping someone else's child get online and change their life.

Perhaps Microsoft can celebrate its 30th year in business by opening up its hardware to the developing world and encouraging all of us who go out and buy its new games system to bring our old ones in for legal modification.

And if it is really concerned about putting lots of Linux computers into circulation, it could even offer a free Windows license for every old Xbox.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital



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