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Tapping Into Tinkering

Users of Sony's PlayStation Portable have rigged it to surf the Internet and send instant messages, but the company discourages such fiddling.
Users of Sony's PlayStation Portable have rigged it to surf the Internet and send instant messages, but the company discourages such fiddling. (By Richard Drew -- Associated Press)

TiVo supported a "TiVo underground" of hackers as long as users weren't devising ways to bypass the monthly subscription fee. But some users discovered that trick, and TiVo has started to ramp up security on the box, shutting some of the software doors that make modifications possible.

"Companies walk sort of a fine line on this," said Michael Gartenberg, research director at JupiterResearch, a technology analysis firm.

Consumer-electronics giant Sony Corp. generally has not favored unauthorized tinkering on its wares. When one user hacked into a Sony robotic dog and posted directions on the Internet to make the toy dance to music, the company threatened to sue.

Now, the company is waging a quiet battle against attempts to modify its PlayStation Portable, or PSP.

Though PSP sales have lagged behind those of rival Nintendo Co.'s Game Boy, the device has been a smash with hackers, who have reprogrammed it for wireless Web surfing, loaded it with movies from DVD players and turned it into a calculator or drum synthesizer.

But whenever programmers work around the PSP safeguards, Sony releases software that owners must install to play the latest games and that wipes out the homemade functions. The company has updated the software twice, and the PSP came out in North America only three months ago.

"PSP contains robust technology and was designed to run specific applications," Sony said in a statement. "Consumers should be aware that any hacking or homebrew applications may cause damage to the PSP unit, and will void the warranty." The company said the software updates have been made "to prevent this type of damage and protect against various forms of piracy."

Sony has reason to view such hacks as a threat to its bottom line, analysts say.

The same modifications that let PSP users send instant messages also make it possible to download illegal copies of games off the Internet.

Some programmers say that isn't their intent but acknowledge the problem.

"I wish there was a way we could do this without the piracy, but they both come hand in hand," said Sajeeth Cherian, a senior at a university in Ottawa. Cherian has designed free software that helps PSP users put video content, such as recorded TiVo shows, onto the device. The software has been downloaded 650,000 times, he said.

Phillip Torrone, an editor at the techie-oriented Make magazine, said Sony's hard-line stance could be self-defeating. Each attempt to thwart hackers makes them more determined to do their tricks, he said.

Even mainstream users who want to jazz up their devices wind up turning to the Internet for underground help, where they also can learn how to get pirated software and movies.

Torrone, who plays a homebrewed version of chess on his PSP, said he thinks he has a better idea for gadget makers.

"I think the really smart companies should release their products to the alpha geeks for six months and let the alpha geeks play around with them," he said. "It seems to me they'd save a lot of money on R&D, and they'd come out with much more solid products."

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