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Articles: The Incredibly Hackable Apple TV

Never before in the history of Apple Computer (now Apple Inc.) has one of its products been so quickly and thoroughly hacked as the Apple TV. The swarm of attention surrounding the Apple TV is a phenomenon that defied all expectations, and deserves examination.

Almost all of Apple new releases get inspected by the faithful with the enthusiasm of a newly discovered archeological dig. New product "un-boxing" pictures make their way around the net within hours of the first FedEx delivery. Every detail of Apple's award-winning packaging is displayed. The Mac-geek photo spreads often include disassembly pictures. I myself have had my hand in a few of those online Mac centerfolds. For the last few years, the bar has not been raised beyond that point, but now we have the Apple TV. Not only was it un-boxed and disassembled like other recent Apple releases, but this time the product was re-engineered by Apple-loving zealots, and within a matter of hours.

One of the first user upgrades performed on the Apple TV was a hard drive upgrade. The Apple TV ships with a 40GB 2.5" laptop hard drive that sacrifices nearly 10GB of space to the Apple TV's operating system and restore partitions. This leaves barely 30GB for storage space. The Apple TV was designed to have content streamed to it over the home network, and it obviously was not intended to be a repository for all your iTunes media. Whatever Apple's intent, many users do not have the ideal environment for a stock Apple TV. Besides needing a component video or HDMI-enabled TV, Apple assumes that you have a fast home network and a computer that is constantly connected to that network. The 30GB of space can store your recently unwatched and un-listened-to media, but for many that is not nearly enough to store the bulk of their iTunes library.

For the Apple TV user who just wants to see and hear what's new, 40GB is plenty of drive space. But for that other portion of the iTunes faithful who intersperse new and old programming, some of whom have a slow network or a household with only laptops, and the 120GB drive upgrade is a compelling hack. With a larger drive installed on the Apple TV, the user's Mac will not need to be turned on or even in the house. A bigger drive gives full access to all, or at least the majority of, an iTunes library. That makes the Apple TV a true standalone device. So many people were interested in having an upgraded drive, PowerMax made an Apple TV 120GB version for sale, and it has been a huge hit.

In addition to the drive upgrade, the hacker community took immediate aim at software modifications. There are many more video file formats around than what the Apple TV supports, and because the Apple TV runs a modified version of OS X 10.4, it was possible to add video support for other video formats. Even with support for those file formats, the use of them is problematic. The complication comes from getting those formats to work through the Apple TV's interface, which is unique to the Apple TV. Also there is the issue of getting those files to transfer over to the Apple TV. The default gateway to the Apple TV is through iTunes, and iTunes will filter what can be transferred to an Apple TV. Syncing unsupported files can require the use of unintuitive tools like SSH. Unlike the hard drive upgrade, most of the software hacks require a constant level of 'geekery' to sustain their use. It is also important to understand that any changes made to the software on the Apple TV can be erased by the next Apple TV Software Update.

Even with these drawbacks, every day brings new plug-ins and added features. The next few months will surely bring a small cottage industry of shareware developers that create alternative Apple TV interfaces. Already, the community of Apple TV hackers has installed a full working version of OS X onto their Apple TVs. People have reverse-engineered plug-ins for the default Backrow GUI, the interface that runs on the Apple TV's version of OS X.

Beyond just hacking the OS on the Apple TV, there has been work to activate the USB port on the back of the Apple TV. The Apple TV shipped with a USB port that is inactive by default. That USB port has tempted the hacker crowd even before the first Apple TV shipped. There is wild speculation to what Apple will use it for in future updates, but for now people are happy to use it for extra drives and keyboard/mouse connectivity.

With all this attention going to the Apple TV, a larger question comes to light. Why are so many people hacking this device? An iPod or Mac Pro does not get this kind of customization. Is it that the Apple TV is not capable of doing what most customers want? Is it lacking prime features right out of the box? Is it just because Apple has not shipped any new products in months and the Mac hacker community is looking for something interesting on which to spend their time? Or is it that Apple has released a piece of hardware that is far more capable than they are initially willing to admit? My guess is that the answer is the latter.

It is possible to hack an iPod with a different OS, and you can change the hardware, but it is nothing like what you can do to an Apple TV. The likely scenario for the future of the Apple TV is probably similar to the development of Boot Camp. Just as Apple waited until the Mac hackers successfully installed Windows XP on an Intel Mac before releasing the Boot Camp Beta, it is likely that Apple will update the Apple TV to incorporate some of the hacks being developed by this current group of hackers. The difference here is that Apple can only allow features that will not scare Hollywood away from releasing titles on iTunes. Apple will have to balance the features of the Apple TV against the comfort levels of entertainment executives. Regardless of what Apple must do to keep the Hollywood crowd happy, the Apple TV has already proven itself to be much more than what Apple claims is in the box.

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