Tuesday, 22 June 2010

In praise of hackers and modders

(Edit: I called the i8910 the Omnia Icon in Australia. Actually, that's a winmob device. The i8910 is the HD Icon. Which doesn't sound any less stupid.)

Before I start, let's get a little something out of the way, first:
A hacker is someone who tries to take things apart in order to understand them, and fiddle with them in order to improve them.
A cracker is someone who tries to break things in order to break them for fun and profit.
Right, moving on.
Here's the thing: The world relies upon hackers to advance. Engineers? Hackers, if they're any good. The spirit of "What would happen if..." and "Hey, how does that work..." drives productive creativity and improvements.
Scientists? Hackers, by definition. Hackers of reality and of life.
But the term is a computer one, and it's computer programmers who fiddle who I want to talk about now.
All programmers, if they're any good, are hackers. They want to know how somebody else did that cool thing, they have to chase down bugs in their own code, they're dissatisfied when they see something functioning below-par. They'll sooner spend two days building a replacement than twenty seconds being frustrated.
And they make really cool toys for the rest of us.
Commercial software is built by waged hackers with deadlines and managers. Open source software is built by hackers, some of whom have wages and managers while they're doing so.
And then there's the ones producing not the major product, but the improved version. The one you have to work to get. The operating system that works the way it should have done, if only the company producing it hadn't had commercial obligations or, well, deadlines and managers.
I had a Sharp Zaurus SL5500 for years. It was unabashedly a toy when I got it - a chunky PDA with a QWERTY keyboard and a Linux operating system which satisfied my twin desires of having a cool toy, and being able to type lying in bed. Laptops are too clumsy, too bulky, for lying on your back jotting down thoughts and chasing ideas. Oh, and an ebook reader for Project Gutenberg classics.
Being Linux, an open-sourced system, built using a variety of also open-sourced toolkits and projects, it was only a matter of time before OpenZaurus arose, flexed its muscles, and started producing an alternate, community-built, better-performing, less rubbish software platform.
Okay, buggier as well, but that's the price you pay for development.
I have no idea how many times I reflashed that poor device with new updates, but by the end I could do it in my sleep and it was probably a contributing factor to its eventual, inevitable, demise.
Eventually, however, the SL5500 was replaced with the sexier (black) SL6000, and then the C-series came out with a mini-laptop form factor and a swivelling screen and all the sex appeal that chunky SL5500 never had, and development on the now rapidly aging devices slowed and then stopped, lingering bugs left untreated.
At the same time, my progression through mobile phones landed me at a device with a big colour screen and enough of a java platform to run ebook readers, and then I found a text editor for the phone, and the Zaurus was doomed. The next time I actually tried to turn it on, no amount of hard-resetting, battery-replacing and fiddling would produce the merest flicker of life.
That phone was replaced with a much more powerful one running an open-standards operating system called Symbian with an open-standards interface called S60.
And that brings us neatly to my point, really, because we are now in the realm of smartphones which are more powerful than dedicated PDAs or even laptops of years gone, and one of the defining points of a smartphone is that you can upgrade it.
Which, of course, decent companies do on a regular basis - buy a top-end or even middle-range Nokia and you can confidently expect a new firmware version to bring speed, battery life and functionality improvements every other month for a year or more.
But some don't and, occasionally, others take up the slack.
And then there are those which invite it.
Google's Android operating system is Linux, customised. Which, to geeks and hackers, is like walking into a lion enclosure waving a chunk of dead goat over your head.
While companies pander to network operators and take special note of commercial agreements, hackers cheerfully take the code, rip out the rubbish, port across a cool toy from the next release, drop in something else to fix what everyone except the distributor thinks is a problem, and hey presto! You void your warranty but, frankly, the advantages outweigh that.
If you use an HTC device running Android, you really should be using Cyanogen's replacement ROMs.
Motorola managed to alienate a large community of current or potential users, me included, by preventing this practice on the non-USA Milestone.
It's healthy to have people like this keeping the big boys on their toys.
But let's return to Symbian. The platform, used by nearly everyone but championed by Nokia, who bought S60 and dominated the ecosystem to such an extent that they, in my amateur opinion, damaged its competitiveness, has its roots in 8-bit greyscale devices running for two weeks on a pair of AA batteries, and has been evolving healthily ever since, becoming the most resource-efficient, flexible and potentially powerful of all smartphone systems without, at the same time, really extending itself.
It can support network protocols that are still in the laboratory, but read the international press and you'd get the opinion it's doomed, dead in the water, rubbish, horrible to use, out-dated and slow, part of which relates to S60, which quite frankly is old and has always demanded a little effort to use it properly, and part of which is Nokia being parsimonious with hardware, relying on the efficiencies of Symbian to keep costs down while still providing class-leading functionality.
But then there's Samsung. Unlike Nokia, who cut back on hardware and then spend time and effort optimising the software, Samsung produce truly mighty devices and then just sort of... forget them.
The current king of Symbian, the most powerful and the most impressive, is not the all-singing N97 family but the one-piece Samsung i8910, variously known as Omnia HD (because it was the first phone able to shoot HD video) or, in Australia, the slightly nauseating HD Icon. Great 8MP camera, great stereo speakers taking up each end of the device, great big 3.7" capacitive toughened glass AMOLED screen, 600MHz processor with full graphics acceleration and oodles of RAM.
But the first release had crippling problems, and since then it's had, well, a couple of firmware updates, but not what you'd call love, care and attention from momma and papa in Korea. The C: drive, where the operating system lives, is so small that a couple of system updates fills it. And the discerning smartphone power-user these days demands updates, currency, movement, dammit!
Roll on HyperX. Yes, it's possible to produce custom firmwares for Symbian. Generally, this hasn't been needed, and it's presumably tricky enough that people haven't tried. But for a megaphone like the i8910, hoops were, as the saying goes, jumped through. And even people who normally run a mile from the innocent suggestion that hacking a phone to customise the home screen might not mean the end of the world, have dipped their toe in the water and declared themselves impressed.
I wouldn't be surprised if Samsung sell a few more i8910s thanks to HyperX. I may very well, in the next month or so, be one of them.
Raise your glasses to the hackers and the modders - we wouldn't have got this far without them.

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