CES - Hack this application!

Vendors can build a buzz around products by embracing the hacker community, according to technology company executives speaking at the International Consumer Electronics Show.

Vendors often offer development tools to allow professional users and third-party developers to customize business-productivity products. In the consumer electronics market, however, vendors tend to resist the idea of allowing customers to tamper with their products, noted vendors speaking at the show, which ended Thursday in Las Vegas.

But there are benefits to opening up consumer products to hackers and hobbyists.

One example is TiVo Inc., founded in 1997 to develop digital video technology that allows users to record TV shows.

TiVo, based on Linux, is an extensible platform, and from its early days the company welcomed hackers and professional developers.

"When we first came out no one knew what DVR was," said Richard Bullwinkle, vice president of products at entertainment networking company Mediabolic Inc., and formerly a senior member of TiVo's product marketing team. "So we made it hacker friendly."

Hackers formed an early adopter community that helped promote the product, he said.

"We had forums where you could go in and see what was happening," Bullwinkle said.

Microsoft Corp., which entered the game market late with the Xbox and faced formidable competition from companies including Sony Corp., came out with a gaming software architecture that is extensible.

XNA is a set of tools designed to allow people to create their own games, said Jim Baldwin, product unit manager for the IPTV (Internet Protocol TV) program within the Microsoft TV Division. Though some tools are meant for professionals, XNA Game Studio Express is also targeted at students and hobbyists.

"The idea was to embrace the gaming community and give them the ability to make their own games; it's a good way to bring people into the business of building games," Baldwin said.

There are legitimate business reasons, however, for companies to resist having users alter products, the panelists acknowledged.

"If you make some thing too easy to hack, people will call you when they break things," Baldwin said. Then, the vendor loses money when the help desk aids users sort though problems, he noted.

"You have to achieve a balance, it's hard to know where to set the dial," Bullwinkle said.

Sony Corp. has been too strict about preventing users from playing around with hacks into products like the PlayStation Portable, Bullwinkle and other panelists agreed. While Sony had a huge hit in the 80s with the Sony Walkman portable CD player, it is behind in the music player arena now, and Microsoft has caught up to the company in the game market, they noted.

The music industry also has been too strict about DRM (digital rights management) copy controls, the vendors said. Consumers are confused and angry about not being able to play songs acquired from one vendor on other vendors' devices, they said.

"If they made things easy to use they might make a lot more money on it," Bullwinkle said.

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