‘Fair use, Xbox hacking, and how far will Linux users go to get a cheap PC?’

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, in ZDNet’s Hardware 2.0 blog, asks whether it is ‘ethical’ for users to install GNU/Linux on an Xbox, or in general, to use hardware they have bought in whatever way they wish.

“First, is it ethical to hack an Xbox or any other bit of commercial hardware? I’m not just talking about Microsoft hardware here… I’m thinking about the smaller fish that might have a good idea, but can’t make it viable to get it out of the door because their business model could be undermined by people circumventing any security they put in place.”

Other people’s failed business models should not be the concern of customers. If they’re buying the hardware, it’s up to them to do what they want with it. If customers want to do something with the hardware that the manufacturer has not anticipated, why not work with them?

“Put a free operating system into the ecosystem and it’s only a matter of time before users start looking for free (or nearly free) hardware to run it on. Problem is, it’s much easier to make a virtual product that’s free than it is to come up with free hardware.

While we’re on the subject of free operating systems (or free anything for that matter), it’s important to bear in mind that someone, somewhere, has paid for it, maybe not with money, but with their time or effort. There’s no such thing as a totally free lunch – someone, somewhere, always picks up the tab.”

This is especially naïve. It’s free as in speech, not necessarily free as in beer.

He then goes on to talk about how he “fears” that Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 Laptop may become popular in the west where it “is going to be attractive to a whole host of hackers and modders and could be used as the basis for countless projects.”

How is this bad? The more widely the system is adopted, and the more user knowedge and expertise that is generated and disseminated, the greater the network benefits for all involved, from kids in Cambodian vilages to kids in Cambridge, MA.

Indeed, a truly global, low-priced hardware system with a huge user base and huge knowledge base, modifying, improving and repurposing the hardware, including millions of users in developing countries right from the start, is surely something extremely desirable: truly the democracy of innovation.

The comments on the post contain some great analogies to help set the record straight.


  1. Todd

    > Other people’s failed business models should not be the concern of customers.

    Yes and no. In cases where a service aspect from the company side is required for the hardware (or software) product to work properly, then it is in the interest of the customer to see that service continue (which entails the business model succeeding in some form or another). This is not to say that consumers need to supplicate themselves before anti-hacking laws and policies, but consider that Tivo works much better when the Tivo listings service comes with it. In this sense, the design reinforces the perpetuation of the business model, and the customer loses part of the product if that model dies.

  2. Dan

    Of course you’re right: with products which work as part of a subscription/service provision service, it’s in the customer’s interest that the provision of the service continues.

    You could say the same about supporting particular file formats or storage media (not enough people bought Betamax VCRs, so production of cassettes was slashed, so it made life more difficult for those who did buy the VCRs in the first place).

    It’s also the case with spare parts – it can even become a self-fulfilling prophecy if customers don’t buy a product in the first place because they’re worried that spare parts won’t be available because the company’s health looks shaky. Sales drop, and the company does close, and lo, spare parts are difficult to obtain for those people who did buy the product.

    But in the case of most products, there is no need for a specific service to be perpetually provided by the manufacturer for the product to function. Ford could have got into oil refining and marketing (“Your Ford warranty will be invalid unless you always fill up with Ford gas”) but they didn’t: it was presumably recognised that the customers wouldn’t take to that level of control.

    Say that Tivo allowed buyers to use it with whatever free listings service they wanted, i.e. made the device compatible deliberately. The manufacturer would lose revenue from the subscriptions, but probably sell more boxes to people who don’t want to have to pay the subscription to make up for it. Unless the boxes are sold below cost in the first place, which seems unlikely.

  3. Designers are not omnipotent. How the hell can a designer, or group of, think of all the ways a device could be used? Designers should be working towards a model where consumers are able, if they so choose, to modify their purchases and so better meet their requirements. I can’t stand the idea of designer playing God.

  4. Dan

    Damn right, Simon. And ideally, the designers would, if they’re really interested in how people use their products, look at the modifications users make or would like to make, and listen to their comments, and feed back those improvements in the next version of the product.

    I think the problem is in many cases that it isn’t necessarily the designers making the policies of non-cooperation/deliberate persecution of users, but other policy-makers within companies, or the greased palms of the legislators. Look at the kind of ridiculous controls that would be – and are being – imposed on the design of new technology thanks to certain lobbying organisations interfering. I don’t believe most designers really like those kind of restrictions any more than the customers do (after all, most designers are also customers), but unless they stand up for the freedom to be on the users’ side, it’s just going to get worse.

  5. Pingback: Architectures of Control in Design » Freedom to Tinker - The Freedom to Tinker with Freedom?

  6. It is perfectly ethical. It’s our system after we buy it. If we don’t care about nullifying the warranty, who has a right to dictate what we can or cannot do with it?

  7. VERY dubious.......

    The right to choose in which way to use a system which belongs to us…Hmmm. Obviously this must be stuck to only in certain respects and not taken as a gospel across all aspects. Otherwise of course I take my laptop round to my least favorite persons house and smack it over his head…
    -Yes of course I realise that is not what was meant, but the freedom to decide things for ourselves; about what to buy for dinner, which car to drive, when to get a job, when to holiday, even aspects of how to parent our children is more and more in control of others. If we still wrap ourselves in the nice cosy thinking that we control stuff ourselves…FORGET IT. 99% of everthing u me and all earth does and says stems because of global advertising, huge buisinesses practically owning government, and a network of big brother type applications to make G. Orwell sit upright and take his ‘daily exercises’… Pessimist (Sorry for the spellings!) and conspiricie theorist..yeah so?!? How about the proof that certains countries trains play ads directly designed to mimmic the repettitive sound on a train!!! Facebook 4 example under a lot of fire recently=Advertises at u, U cant delete anything, Anyone can see all sorts about u even the C.I.A. They will end up with one of the most powerfull profiles about you ever. Its worth approx £6Billion and has 3 men on the board who as u can imagine r FILTHY rich.And one, by own admision is ‘tryin to demolish the real world, “nature”, and install a virtual one. Trust me …or rather; no one, there are much worse culprits…dont even start me on walmart, tesco, the royal family..!

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