Tapping Into Tinkering
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
Fans of the TiVo digital video recorder have discovered how to break it open and install a larger hard drive. Early users of the Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner, are rewiring it to serve as a "mobile security robot." Owners of the new Sony PlayStation Portable have figured out how to use the game machine to surf the Internet and exchange instant messages.
In the digital era, every consumer-electronics product comes with microchips and software programming, and for a new generation of tech-savvy users, these are the raw materials needed to make a digital toy or appliance do tricks that its creators didn't envision.
Sometimes, tinkerers become a consumer electronics maker's unofficial research-and-development team, with innovations winding up as built-in features down the line.
TiVo's most ardent fans came up with a way to record TV shows by sending commands via the Internet long before the company got around to officially offering that feature.
And before the iPod was the ubiquitous gadget it is today, early users of Apple's digital music player enabled it to store addresses and text files -- a feature the company now promotes.
Customers also came up with the idea of recording their own talk and music shows and making them downloadable for the iPod -- a phenomenon called "podcasting" that has become so popular that Apple recently rolled out software to streamline the process.
Americans have always liked to fiddle with things, from building better ham radios to juicing up car engines in the driveway. The urge fuels a multibillion-dollar industry in after-market auto parts, and automakers keep a close eye on how enthusiasts find new ways to use their products. Mitsubishi Motors, for example, sponsors teams that modify its Lancer Evolution performance car for auto shows.
For techies, the same instinct creates a drive to push the limits on anything that can conceivably be reprogrammed.
"The first thing I did when I got my hands on a programmable computer was to try and make it do something it wasn't supposed to do," said Paul Saffo, director of Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley think tank.
Saffo said he thinks it makes good business sense for gadget makers to keep an eye on the enhancements, tweaks and hacks that users are making. It's not the executives in the boardroom who figure out how to make a gadget great, Saffo said, but the "fanatics and renegades and people in garages. . . . Hackers create markets."
Roomba's creator, iRobot Corp., is such a believer in letting programmers play with the appliance that it has said it might release tools to facilitate reprogramming.
But many consumer-electronics makers discourage such activity. At the very least, anyone who cracks open the case on a new handheld computer, video game console or digital music player is probably voiding the warranty. At worst, hackers can undermine a company's business.