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The World of Pod Modding

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Sep 29, 2008 4:00 AM PT

The iPod has become more than a simple music player. It now plays video, it features games, and (in the case of the iPod touch) it runs third-party applications. It's basically a pocket computer. And like any other computer, it can be tinkered with to do more than it was originally programmed to do.

The World of Pod Modding

While the iPhone brought attention to the world of "jailbreaking" devices, there's a thriving community of technology enthusiasts happily modifying iPods, giving them new functions, custom skins and unofficial applications. Hacking into iPods is easier than ever. There are Web sites that provide the tools and techniques and thousands of smart iPod modders ready and willing to help out in online forums.

It should be noted, though, that just about any under-the-hood tinkering with an iPod or iPhone will void the device's warranty. But for the brave souls willing to risk it, the world of iPod hacking awaits.

Lots of Resources to Get the Job Done

Learning how to hack into an iPod is almost as easy as running an online search with the terms "hack" and "iPod" ... but "jailbreak" and "iPod" generate great results, too. One site, hacktheipodtouch.com, is pretty clear with its mission, but others like ipodtouchfans.com, offer similar hacking tips for other models.

YouTube is also full of videos showing step-by-step processes. Early iPod enthusiasts even installed Linux on their iPods, but most simply used programs like the open source MP3 firmware Rockbox to customize the interfaces and extend the functionality to support other applications like Last.fm, music codecs and games. In fact, Rockbox just released a new version, though the update is best used to jazz up older iPods up to the 5.5 generation that first introduced video playback capabilities. Rockbox, by the way, also supports iRiver, Sandisk and Archos players.

But Why?

With the iPod lineup generally receiving one rave review after another for glorious, elegant innovation, why do people hack into them? Besides voiding the warranty, they run the risk of making it unusable with Apple's iTunes Store. And then there's the worst risk of all -- they could accidentally transform their iPods into paperweights.

"People seem to have an innate desire to understand and control the machines in their lives. Sometimes this is driven by curiosity -- the same kind of curiosity that leads people to careers in science and engineering -- while in other cases people want to adapt the devices to their individual needs," J. Alex Halderman told MacNewsWorld. Halderman is a scientist at the computer science department and the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton, as well as contributing blogger at Freedom to Tinker.

"Also, there's an innate pleasure in tinkering, whether it's hot rodding a car or jailbreaking an iPhone: the special gratification of deciphering how a complex machine works and then figuring out how to make it better," Halderman explained.

But what about the risk of breakage? iPods aren't exactly cheap.

"I think people understand that this [risk] comes hand-in-hand with responsibility -- if you break your device in the process of tinkering with it, you have yourself to blame," he said.

New Features and Functionality?

Are there apps out there that let jailbroken iPod touches do things that you simply cannot do with the wares found at Apple's App Store? Similarly, with the iPod classic, can you hack the firmware to make the device run a different OS entirely?

"The reasons why people jailbreak their iPods is simple. They want their device to do things which it is physically capable of, but which Apple decided that the device shouldn't be able to do," Peter Eckersley, staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told MacNewsWorld.

"For instance, some people have their music encoded with free audio codecs like Ogg Vorbis or FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). Ogg Vorbis files offer many advantages over MP3 and AAC (Advanced Audio Coding), but Apple decided not to support them. Free/open source software projects like Rockbox have sprung up to offer a solution to people who have bought iPods but are frustrated by these software decisions at Apple," he explained.

"As another example, some people run free operating systems on their computers, but also want to use an iPod. Apple has gone out of their way to make it hard for operating systems like GNU/Linux to talk to later-generation iPods," he explained. When people buy a new iPod and discover that the device won't talk to Linux in the same way that their old one did -- or buy one for the first time and discover that it doesn't play all of their music files -- they're going to go looking for a way to fix the problem, he noted.

Rising Popularity and Lower Risks

While Apple has made it more difficult to hack and deconstruct the firmware that runs its latest iPods, the touch's similarity to the higher profile of the iPhone has seemingly spurred efforts to jailbreak the iPod touch and create new applications for it.

"Jailbreaking's killer application is customization ... everything from the icons, to adding a 'stacks'-like functionality, to skinning the iPod and Safari applications," Bobby Georgescu told MacNewsWorld. Georgescu is the owner of Vigorous Media and founder of hacktheipodtouch.com and ipodtouchfans.com, told MacNewsWorld.

The "stacks" application is one that replicates the Stacks functionality of the Downloads folder in Mac OS X, letting the icons of the contents pop up in a gently leaning stack. Is it compelling enough on its own for users to bother hacking their iPod touch to get it? Probably not. But add enough of these kinds of features, and more owners might find the time to tinker.

In fact, some of these sites are catering to a surprising number of owners willing to void their warranties and possibly break a lovable device -- ipodtouchfans.com, for instance, can boast nearly 1 million posts by members, of which there are over 200,000.

The risks, though, may be sliding away.

"It is nearly impossible to 'brick' an iPod touch. The published jailbreaking tutorials are all reversible since they only modify software and not hardware," Georgescu explained. Sometimes users think they've bricked their iPods, but in the end, people on forums can usually help them fix the issues and/or restore the iPod touch.

And for some users, the tantalizing features make it worth the effort.

"Some of the cool stuff that can run on a hacked iPod are things like the scrobbler for Last.fm, PocketTouch, [which is] an app that allows you to control playback without taking the iPod out of your pocket, applications that let you access Web mail providers by converting the HTML interface of the Web mail to a POP3 compatible system," Georgescu explained.

"On top of all of these, you've got things like Gameboy and NES emulators that Apple would never approve. It's really a great system that adds a lot of value with almost no risk," he added.

For the Good of Humanity?

There may be more to hacking and jailbreaking than meets the eye.

"Beyond the joy of tinkering, people who hack their devices serve an important purpose," Halderman said.

"They're a kind of safety valve on the ability of manufacturers to dictate how their products may be used by the people who own them. Giving manufacturers too much control can stifle innovation," he added, noting that manufacturers that increase restrictions can spur even more users to jailbreak their devices.


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