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Science + Tech

We're All Hackers Now

But will Apple help close off the promise of the creatively open Internet?

Steph Gellatly, Patrick O'Rourke, Lauren Strapagiel and Luke Vandezande 5 Feb

Steph Gellatly, Patrick O'Rourke, Lauren Strapagiel and Luke Vandezande are third-year journalism students at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario.

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Wozniak (right of Jobs) in his hacker heyday

[Editor's note: The Tyee is proud to co-publish with a multi-part investigation of Maker Culture -- the do-it-yourself movement fast evolving in North America and beyond. This is episode four of 11, running Fridays.]

It's a wet Saturday afternoon at a hacker convention in an industrial section of Hamilton, Ontario. Treven Watson's Lucite badge is flashing: blue, green and red. The LED lights are controlled by a circuit in the laser-etched ID. That little bundle of electronics is about to be probed and reprogrammed by Watson and the three dozen other coders, anxious to make it do anything but alternate primary colours.

"There's a tradition in hacker conventions of making badges that can be expanded, can be hacked to do other things," said Watson.

Watson is a member of the Hamilton hacker space think|haus. Attendees at the convention each got their own badge and spent hours seeing who could hack it best.

Hackers love figuring out systems like these badges, whether it's picking a lock, social engineering or hacking a computer.

Beyond the thrill of the prank, what drives people to hack? "I think it’s what drives us to be human," said Howard Rheingold, a writer, artist and teacher who coined the term "virtual community."

"When we talk about technology, I think people often disconnect that from the fact that we are creatures that have hands with opposable thumbs and binocular vision and brains that have evolved because we coordinate our activities in manipulating the world.

"Our ancestors were rather small creatures and they were prey, how was it that we turned into the top predator in the food chain? It had to do with not only our ability to use our hands, but our ability to coordinate and communicate with each other."

The birth of digital hacking

By coordinating and communicating, early computer enthusiasts formed support systems. Hackers experimented with software and hardware, pushing the bounds of computers for the fun of it, and advancing computer capabilities along the way. One of the most notable of these was the Homebrew Computer Club (HCC) out of Silicon Valley in California.

Out of the HCC came Steve Wozniak's Apple I, a hobby computer made to impress his friends. He handed out schematics and helped people set up their own at home. His college friend Steve Jobs convinced him to patent and sell the Apple I. This was Apple Inc.'s first product, and it was quickly followed by the Apple II, which was produced until the early '90s.

The personal computer revolution all but ended community hacking. Hackers quickly made careers as developers who couldn't share their secrets, or they would be scooped by a competitor.

Security cracking, our modern idea of hacking, grew out of the '80s alongside personal computers.

At the same time as the negative press on hacking, more people began using PCs. Connecting computers became a major goal, and early networks were developed -- ARPANET, Bulletin Board Systems, then web 1.0 and 2.0. People continued to appropriate technology and use it to connect to the world around them.

"'Appropriated' is a word that is compatible with 'hacked,'" said Rheingold, and in the case of communications technology, "people will take tools that are provided for other reasons and use them to communicate."

But the concept of hacking technology for the fun of it, and making things work the way you want them to, can still trump the desire to create new ways to communicate. 

Fresh, homemade mobile innovation

"I was inspired by the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, where he's sick, he makes this call where he plays back puking sounds from his keyboard," says Tobias Weyland. "Bueller inserts this diskette into his keyboard and pretends to be really sick, I've always wanted a thing like that.”  Weyaland's a Nintendo DS homebrew game developer.

He finally got to fullfill his dream -- well, without the cybervomitting. The PhD computer science student at Aachen University in Germany always wanted a portable music tracker, so he programmed one. Nitro Tracker is one of the most popular homebrew applications for the Nintendo DS and allows users to create basic melodies that resemble the beeps and boops of old video games. Weyland is also part of an active community of homebrew developers and coders called Dorkbot.

Weyland started playing the popular PC game Crayon Physics. He wanted to take it everywhere in his pocket, so he developed Pocket Physics. Drawings on the DS touch screen react to real world forces, like gravity. Crayon Physics has spawned an online community, where users can upload and share their creations. When Weyland runs into problems developing DS homebrew, he brings his applications to his local Dorkbot group, a worldwide group of makers and hackers who get together and share ideas and concepts.

Homemade applications need help to work. Small cartridges, called flashcards, hack the DS and allows it to run unlicensed code, including pirated commercial game files. This gives the homebrew community a bad reputation, and Nintendo has shut down many flashcard retailers. Over the years, flashcards have evolved from clunky pieces of plastic to sleek devices that look like regular DS games. Micro SD cards fit inside them and allow data transfer from computer to flashcard.

Lucas Arts lead designer Jens Anderson developed the game Colors!, which allows users to create detailed art. Anderson worked around the DS hardware limitations to make his advanced image creation program. An online community sprang up, similar to Pocket Physics' following, which allows users to upload their artwork.

"The most surprising thing was clearly how well it was received within the professional digital concept art community," said Anderson.

Jeremy Smith of Vancouver, British Columbia, developed a DS version of Guitar Hero. Users tap onscreen notes and follow the tune of popular video game music. Smith collaborated with an artist to create the visual interface for his game.

"I'd always been interested in doing a music-slash-rhythm game," said Smith, who also programs user-generated iPhone applications.

Closed platforms: why there isn't 'an app for that'

The iPhone revolutionized mobile communications by allowing individuals and software companies to develop apps for the platform. But Apple continues to frustrate app developers with a "black box" approval process that many find arbitary and slow. Now Google has opened the gates further for inexpensive application development on the open source Android mobile platform.

Android, which runs on open source code, offers an app store, the Android Market, much like the iPhone's, but with one important difference -- Google's removed the approval process. Android’s open door policy has the hacker and programming communities' interest.

Michael Both originally developed the GolfCard app for the iPhone, because it was the only touch screen handset capable of running his program. Google contacted Both when Android was released to tell him about their new operating system. "Essentially, it was described to us as being just like the iPhone platform, minus the approval process, but with the stipulation that if the app was seen as inappropriate it would be removed from the store," he said.

Aart Bik is a Google software engineer who has applications available on the Android Market. "I implemented a few board games just for fun and put them in the market in the hope that users would enjoy them. I expect that professional programs will replace them pretty soon, but I have been pleasantly surprised with the popularity of the applications so far," Bik said.

Matt Liszt is a software developer at Glu, the company responsible for the mobile version of Call of Duty on Android. Glu has a long list of mobile games which were available before the iPhone. Liszt thinks that because Android is an open platform, it will help makers innovate. "We are already seeing that most of the top apps on Google [Android] are from small developers," Liszt said.

Eric Burke built the State Capitals application for Android. He is outspoken about his passion for an iPhone alternative. "Developers are annoyed by Apple's constant app store rejections. You don't have that same frustration with Android. I can publish an update to my app and it is available for download instantly. As more and more phones arrive, there will be more customers, so Android is becoming a viable market to make some money," Burke said. Like many hackers and makers, Burke wants the freedom to share an innovate the Android Market offers.

A 'beat' to save the open web

Closed mobile platforms, like the iPhone, don't just threaten application diversity. The Mozilla Foundation thinks they threaten the very foundations of a democratic Internet, as users continue to carry their digital lives in their pocket.

Frank Hecker, director of grants and programs for the Mozilla Foundation, said the increase in mobile technology threatens the idea of an open web. Mobile devices are often closed systems with heavy applications restrictions.

"There's a real danger in moving to the mobile space that we're going to lose a lot of the ‘generativity'... of the Internet which has traditionally existed," said Hecker, referring to the revolution of web 2.0, which gave the Internet easy self-publication tools.

This generativity is what the grassroots movement called Drumbeat is hoping to protect.

Created in August 2009 by Chelsea Novak and executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, Mark Surman, Drumbeat is a community of people from knowledgeable hackers to casual web users, who feel that the Internet should be seen as a public utility. Mozilla is giving that community a space to meet, collaborate and receive support from the Foundation themselves.

"There are people out there who, we like to say, they make the web," said Novak, fundraising and communications manager for the Mozilla Foundation. "Technology companies and software companies, they build the web, but people who make the web are people who blog and they do LOLcats... they create all this content and all this material that we use on the web.

"Because they're not necessarily 'building the web,' they may not realize that they have a say in the issues."

The Mozilla Foundation gives those users a say with Drumbeat.

"Mozilla's mission is to make sure that the Internet continues to be open and that it continues to be a place where people can innovate and create," said Surman. "Drumbeat is a new effort to go beyond that and pursue that same objective, but beyond product."

Drumbeat is still in its early stages, with new contributors joining the discussion as the movement grows. The first issues to tackle have yet to be identified, Novak said, but Surman sees the rise of the Internet cloud as an area to address. He said as users toss their personal data into the "cloud," through hosting applications like Gmail or Facebook, they breeze by legal jargon in Terms of Service agreements without fully understanding where their information is going, who owns it and how it will be used.

"There really hasn't been either a conversation or really a set of products to figure out 'what [does] my kind of freedom and my control look like in those cloud apps?'" said Surman.

Drumbeat wants to inspire enthusiasm for the open web and get users, not the corporations, to make change. Surman said Drumbeat is about creating plug-ins and tools that enhance the openness and accessibility of the Internet, rather than asking for changes in proprietary software.

"We can go to Microsoft and say, 'Make IE6 [Internet Explorer] better,' but I'd rather we created a product that people want to use," said Surman. "We're trying to say that anyone can pick up the tools and create the Internet. And I think we all do. So much of the Internet is shaped by us every day in terms of who makes the content. Drumbeat is very much about that." 

The street finds uses for things

Back at the hacker conference, attentions have shifted from the blinking badges to the set-up of a 3D printer from MakerBot Industries.

James Arlen, founder of think|haus, looks across the busy workspace to the half-built printer. "William Gibson said this in the early- to mid-'80s. He said 'the street finds uses for things.' So whatever the original purpose was... whatever the marketer intended, might not be the way that it turned out. And that's where we are. So that was 20 years ago," he says. "What's going to happen in another 20 years?"  [Tyee]

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