XBox : Who Owns the Console you Bought

XBox : Who Owns the Console you Bought XBox : Who Owns the Console you Bought XBox : Who Owns the Console you Bought

On March 29th a lone programmer, known as Habibi_xbox, managed to achieve something which may change the way we perceive the dispute over console modification. Habibi_xbox, whose name roughly translated means friend of the xbox, managed to boot Linux onto an unmodified XBox console using nothing other than a copy of the game 007: Agent Under Fire. The idea behind his achievement was the exploitation of a well known issue the buffer-overflow. The method is very similar to the one used in denial-of-service attacks on web servers.

At the heart of this issue lies the XBox console. Described as a gaming console, XBox is, for all intents and purposes, a PC tweaked for gaming. It carries a 733MHz Celeron, and runs a stripped-down version of the Windows 2000 kernel. The point of contention however, is the fact that XBox only runs Microsoft-signed code by default.

Even though the debate currently focuses on XBox, it would be extremely short sighted to view this issue as strictly a Microsoft problem. The basic point behind this is whether ownership should offer the buyer complete control over the product. In many ways it is the same issue that has been around since console ROM's or DVD ripping, the backup-copy debate. During the various legal and other debates over the backup-copy issue owners argue that ownership of a product should allow them to do with it as they please, including creating a backup-copy which would protect their investment from possible damage to the original. XBox hackers also argue that since they have dished out the asking price for the console they should be allowed to run Linux on it.

In a bold move, XBox Linux Project wrote an open letter to Microsoft arguing for their intent to run somebody else's software on the company's gaming console. As you might expect Microsoft were not to keen on the idea. The letter was written before habibi_xbox's success, on February 17th.
Now that we know it can be done, even without a mod chip, who gets to say what we can or cannot do with a gaming console we have purchased, is it Microsoft or is it the owner?

Follow the link below and to the right in order to find out how each side argues its case.

Microsoft have a strong case. They are the creators of the product and they also have the task of providing content for it. It is not a secret that Microsoft are losing a lot of money for every console they sell, the latest estimate is approximately USD 100 per unit. So it is safe to say that XBox falls under the category of a subsidized product. This in turn means that Microsoft are helping owners by making the console more affordable in order to get the chance to create a user base for their XBox services and products. Much like a cable provider may claim that the receiver used remains their property through a subscription contract.

Microsoft can also argue that if a console is allowed to run unsigned software then it also has the capacity to run games which are not officially purchased as XBox products. This would obviously create the danger of the company losing games sales, which are the most important and profitable aspect of the entire console industry. Microsoft's worries are not limited to losses from sales though. Every title made for the console brings MS earnings through royalties and licenses.

In many ways XBox is just the face of a whole operation which involves a laborious and expensive combination of marketing, content development and publishing. Microsoft are not only pumping money into the hardware they sell, they are actively pursuing content developers such as UK's Rare, creators of DonkeyKong 64 and 007: Goldeneye, an acquisition which cost USD 375 million in cash last September. And the costs don't stop there, during the first six months of 2003 MS have spent USD 300 million for sales and marketing purposes. Add to those figures the cost involved in assisting developers so that they may create content for the platform and you have a substantial and very much ongoing investment.

Although it is certain that the issue of XBox tampering worries Microsoft it is also possible that the company are making alternative plans. XBox Live, MS's online console gaming service, offers the company the unique opportunity to enforce their no tampering wishes. Even consoles that have been fitted with a chip have to have a switch which disables it if the owners wish to use the online service. It is also obvious that future, revised versions of XBox will address the buffer overflow issue which has allowed hackers complete access to the console.

Microsoft's arguments may be strong but they can be contested. The issue of subsidy for example is one which may need further investigation. The people involved may claim that USD 200 for a product could hardly be called subsidy, especially when the competitors are offering their products for similar amounts and are not losing money. So it could just be a bad business decision. The same line of thinking could lead to the assumption that the investment made by Microsoft is also subject to market conditions and if it is excessive to such an extent as to cause the company financial losses the blame should lie squarely with them.

In any case it is unlikely that the people involved in the XBox Linux Project would follow this line of argument. According to them the work they do is just designed so as to unleash the full potential of XBox. A statement on their web site claims: An Xbox running Linux is very inexpensive, and useful as a desktop computer, for email and browsing the web from your TV, as a (web) server or as a node in a Linux cluster. So why not allow yourself to do that for what is, after all, a machine you have paid good money for.

It is almost certain that Microsoft will continue attempting to restrict such moves and almost as certain that people will keep using ingenuity and know-how in order to overcome
those restrictions.
Whatever happens however, this is just another installment of the continuing debate on the limitations, if any, that owners have over products they have purchased and it creates the following question: Should we not create backup-copies or unleash the potential of products we purchase because there is a chance they may be used in other, possibly illegal ways?
What do you think? The answer may hold the key to the future of all forms of electronic entertainment including gaming.