Upgrades complete

I’ve finally gotten the chance to deploy the new security-related fixes for WordPress. I’m not a huge fan of any mass-market weblog packages, or for that matter any heavily popularized software for managing a website. In fact, I plan to use a stable version of Ethanol or Aerosol to maintain this site once I get some time to hammer out some of the installation bugs that have crept in since its first release. It’s difficult enough maintaining “stable” and “development” branches as an sole, independent developer, let alone backporting usability and security fixes.

One of the reasons I feel so strongly about managing my own content is due to some of the security problems that have plagued phpBB; the popular bulletin board system had attracted a significant number of exploits and remote abuse abilities. The exploits were to such an extent that the developers removed the version number of the software from the default footer, since many scripts keyed on this version number in order to facilitate the crack.

I’m not sure of the current state of security for the phpBB project, but frankly I wouldn’t trust it running on a server without mod_security and Hardened PHP. Ideally, you’d run the package in a BSD jail, but that’s not an option for many low-cost web hosts.

While I was in the upgrading mood, I also managed to download the latest Subversion build of Xbox Media Center. For those of you who might not know, XBMC is an open-source application that runs on modified Xbox consoles, allowing it to effectively act as a media library for your TV. The best part about XBMC is its native networking support, so you can stream music and video files from your home network and play them on your TV. It also offers native archive support, so you can view the contents of RAR and ZIP files and play media stored within them.

Unfortunately, the incredible features and functionality of this software (I’ve personally not seen an open-source project as useful as XBMC since Firefox) are all muddled up in the great debate about console modification. Ozymandias (Andre Vrignaud) of the Xbox team goes over the three main reasons to modifying a console in his post, and attempts to debunk them:

  • To play pirated games (Andre’s reasoning: “[A]t the end of the day every game not legally purchased is simply stealing money from the creators.”)
  • To play imported/region-locked games (Andre says: “[S]ometimes companies have good reasons to either not release a title into a region or release it at different dates. It may be because of the time and cost of localization, marketing plans, ad buys, cultural considerations, or perhaps even because of the impact of piracy in the region. Whatever the case, it’s safe to assume the publisher has thought about it.”
  • The desire to run “homebrew”, or non-licensed applications on the console. Effectively, console manufacturers like Microsoft and Sony sell their boxes at a loss, hoping that (over time) their attach rate, or number of games sold per console, will be high enough that they can recoup profit from the games. Andre indicates that he can’t condone running homebrew applications on consoles, because “[a]t the end of the day, the cost difference needs to be made up somewhere, and that’s why we need to you buy those razor blades.”

I personally can’t agree with Andre’s third argument against homebrew modifications. In my experience with marketing, I fit into one of the key demographics for being an early adopter of game consoles and peripherals. I have a significant amount of disposable income (well, as much as a student can have – but I’m not supporting anybody other than myself); I’m interested in the latest games, peripherals and systems that come out; and I understand the business model.
For the original Xbox, which was effectively a set of commodity PC parts in a black box, some attach rates for 2003 were quoted at 5.3 and 5.8 games sold per console. Dean Takahashi mentioned in his book Opening the Xbox that the expected attach rate for profitability on Xbox would have been 9.0 games sold per console, with at least three of those games as first-party, Microsoft-produced titles.

Personally, I can’t feel guilty about running a software modification on my system, because I’m well over the attach rate myself. I have purchased over twelve Xbox titles at full retail value, as well as several controllers, an Xbox Live subscription ($80/year) with headset, and some Halo 2-branded merchandise. I no longer even use my original Xbox to play games or sign on to Xbox Live; that’s reserved for my Xbox 360, which has fairly compelling media features of its own.

I understand Andre’s perspective – that console manufacturers are out to make a profit, and modifying systems cuts into their bottom line – but looking at the required attach rate, you can calculate this out: assuming a break even point on the system and software:

Xbox Console: Assume $299 (first price drop, Canadian funds)
First-Party Games: Assuming three required for break even point at $60 apiece: $180
Third-Party Games: Assuming six required for break even point at $7-$9 licensing fee: $42 – $54
Total Cost: $299 + $180 + $54 = $533

I would gladly pay $600 for a completely “unlocked” system, which allowed me to play games as well as run homebrew software. However, this idea doesn’t hold water, as it has no mass-market appeal. What’s more, the unlocked system would effectively be a development kit – which sells to developers for about a $10,000 US licensing fee. No thanks.
I think what Microsoft is doing with the XNA Game Studio and Creator’s Club on the Xbox 360 is interesting, but it doesn’t offer anything close to what the XBMC team is capable of.