The world is full of fun gadgets which perform specific tasks. Those
gadgets tend to be highly closed affairs, however. Even the ones which run
Linux are sealed shut so that they cannot be played with. The result is
that many of these toys retain annoying misfeatures and do not live up to
their full potential. For this reason, most interesting electronic toys
are surrounded by a crowd of developers looking for a way in. Wouldn't it
be nice if that work weren't necessary?
One device which has begun to attract attention is the GP2X, which will be shipping
soon. This device has a superficial resemblance to the Sony PSP; it has a
central screen with a set of buttons on the right and a joystick-button on
the left. Unlike the PSP, however, it is an open device. The
specifications are available (this Wikipedia page has the
most comprehensive information), and the device runs Linux. It is clearly
meant to be hacked on, and it could be the source of no end of interesting
On the other hand, some details are scarce, and there appears to be no
place to download the Linux distribution used on the device. An earlier version of the
product page contains the ominous words "copyright protection by
certified DRM." The device will remain vaporware for a little longer; once it
is in circulation, the world will see if it is truly a Linux-friendly (as
opposed to simply Linux-using) gadget or not.
A more interesting project, one which could certainly benefit
from more development help, is Rockbox. The Rockbox developers are
creating a free system for portable music players;
the primary target is the Archos product line, but work is proceeding on
iRiver 1xx and 3xx players as well. This project (which will be releasing
version 2.5 "soon") is a demonstration of why
free software is such a nice thing to have on these devices.
A partial list of advantages to the Rockbox software would include:
- A much wider range of translations than the original manufacturer
- Numerous features for blind users, including a voice mode which reads
out menu entries as the user moves over them.
- Gapless playback.
- A wider range of codecs, enabling the use of audio formats not
supported by the manufacturer.
- A user-configurable "while playing" screen, enabling scarce display
space to be used for exactly what the user wishes to see.
- A plugin architecture for adding new features. The plugin
list appears heavily biased toward games, but it also includes image
file viewers, clocks and stopwatches, and more.
- On the iRiver: faster booting and the ability to boot into USB storage
mode when the filesystem is corrupted. So filesystem problems which
would turn a stock iRiver into a brick are recoverable with Rockbox.
The list goes on, but the point should be clear: Rockbox allows the owner
of a music player to do away with no end of annoyances, add new features,
and generally get the most out of a nice piece of hardware. The freedom to
make changes like this is what drew many of us to free software in the
The sad thing is that the Rockbox developers have had to put considerable
work into figuring out how the hardware works and developing firmware
patches. Had the vendors simply opened up their hardware in the first
place, that effort could have gone into making the software better. This
situation should eventually change: Rockbox already looks better than what
a number of manufacturers are installing onto their players. As Rockbox
develops and that gap widens, there will come a time when some manufacturer
will realize that the ability to run Rockbox will be a positive selling
point for a media player. Then, maybe, we'll have a truly open
gadget to play with.
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