Hackers dissect Palm Pre, webOS

It’s unclear how Palm and Sprint will respond

A week after the release of the Palm Pre, hackers are eagerly dissecting and sifting through the webOS software that powers it.

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It’s unclear at this point how Palm (and in some cases Sprint) will respond. Over the weekend, Palm reportedly asked one developer forum to end discussions of how to hack the phone so a notebook PC could connect to it, via USB cable or wireless, and use the Pre as a cellular modem.

The Web site, Pre Dev Wiki, announced it had been “politely cautioned by Palm (in private, and not by any legal team)” that tethering talk would likely spark complaints from Sprint, the Pre’s sole U.S. carrier. Palm then “would be forced to react against the people running the IRC channel and this wiki.”

The post triggered a wave of online speculation, as developers read different meanings into it. PC World’s Ian Paul sees the mild language as evidence of Palm being friendly. Yet Nick Marshall, at Cell Fanatic, sees the same caution as proof that Palm “will be aggressively combating any WebOS hacking.”

Palm has not yet responded to a Network World inquiry about this event, or about the company’s stance with regard to webOS hacking in general.

Palm seems to be making webOS updates mandatory, through automatic background downloads and a requirement that they be installed within a week of the download (apparently the phone can install the updates automatically after that), according to Nilay Patel at Engadet, who referenced Palm support documents. “Sure, we can understand why Palm would want all of its devices to be updated, and we know that a lot of webOS system foundations are in flux while the Mojo SDK is being finalized, but forced updates seem extremely heavy-handed to us,” he writes.

But in the meantime, Pre hacking has apparently become the principal entertainment for a sizeable number of folks. Some of them have managed to port a version of Doom, the classic PC-based first-person 3D shooter game, to the new Pre. That’s a big deal, says Eric Marthinsen, partner with Lexington, Mass.-based Agile Commerce, a custom software house that’s been working with Palm’s webOS and Mojo SDK.

“It does demonstrate that whoever got it working was able to interface with the system at a pretty low level,” he says. “I have seen Doom for the iPhone, but on the iPhone you have lower-level access, which is why there are a ton of 3D apps for it. The Pre doesn't really have any 3D capabilities that are exposed through Mojo. I'm extremely eager to develop some 3D apps for it, so this is especially interesting to me.”

In fact, activating the Pre’s tethering may already be old hat. A poster at the Pre Central forum revealed a possible tethering workaround over the past weekend and it’s already circulated widely. Eric Nguyen, at the Is You Geeked Up blog, gives a detailed account of how to enable tethering with Bluetooth.

But, as Nguyen notes, this kind of work requires root access to Palm’s webOS, which turns out to be pretty easy, according to developers. Pre Dev Wiki has rooting instructions already for Windows and Mac OS X, once you’ve downloaded the entire webOS software image. A YouTube video shows a Pre being rooted in less than 40 seconds once everything is in place.

Among other things, rooting lets developers make use of 1,700 command line Linux programs that are part of the Optware project. Tim Carrol, at Palm Infocenter, posted a IRC transcript of his recent online chat with Rod Whitby, an Australian Linux developer who runs the NSLU2-Linux and Optware projects. Optware includes Web servers, protocol analyzers, compiler tool chains, and applications such as the Asterisk open source PBX and BitTorrent. All will run alongside Palm’s own programs without interfering with them or webOS, according to Whitby.

These are all command-line programs at present, until Palm makes public its Mojo software development kit, allowing GUI front-ends to be created for them, according to Whitby.

Pre Dev Wiki has details on installing the package.

Carroll also provided a link to a webOS dissection by Matthew Garrett, a U.K. developer, who summed up his impressions: “I'm impressed. There's a few rough edges and some obvious short-term hacks, but overall the Pre has the appearance of being a well-engineered distribution. It's recognisably Linux in a way the Android isn't. Since it seems to be possible to gain root by entering the developer mode, I suspect that modifying the firmware image isn't especially difficult.”

Garrett says the embedded modem firmware, for both CDMA and UMTS networks, “looks awfully like the firmware for the Qualcomm Gobi dual-CDMA/HSDPA chipset used in a bunch of modern laptops.”

He predicts that unlocking the phone for use on different networks will be difficult. “Unlocking the device will presumably be similarly difficult to the iPhone - someone will need to find a flaw in the Qualcomm firmware that allows the network lock to be skipped. The PmModemFactory command will let you unlock the phone, but you'll need the appropriate code to do so and can (I guess) permanently lock it if you enter the wrong code too often,” he writes.

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