Ballmer baulks at Oz Xbox chippers charter

Threatens to go legal, take football away

Microsoft's efforts so far to obstruct Xbox mod chips have been relatively trivial, and simple for the modders to circumvent. The most recent redesign, for example, was dealt with inside a week. But on his recent Australian adventure Microsoft president Steve Ballmer dispensed one of the clearest policy statements on Xbox so far - Microsoft intends Xbox to be a closed system and to stay that way, and will use both technical and legal avenues to protect it.

The trigger for Ballmer's bulletin (reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, which unfortunately seems to want money for archive stories) was an Australian court decision in July where a man who had been selling Playstation 2 mod chips was acquitted. The chips were intended to allow imported games to be played on locally-sold machines. In reaction to this Ballmer said that Microsoft might have to reconsider selling Xbox in Australia, or seek changes in the law.

"Given the way the economic model works, and that is a subsidy followed, essentially, by fees for every piece of software sold, our licence framework has to do that," he said. "If there are aspects that are not allowed, it would encourage us to require a change in the legal framework. Otherwise, it wouldn't make economic sense."

Now people, note how Steve expands the catchment area just a tad here. The Playstation case was simply about whether it was OK to chip a console so it'd play out of region stuff which you'd bought outright, and in Australia it apparently is. Presumably, so long as the games being played aren't pirated, then Sony is still getting money for them, and it's largely Sony Australia that's going to be grouchy about it, becomes its local sales will be somewhat impacted. Steve, on the other hand, is galloping off into territory where Microsoft would be effectively ripped off because it had subsidised a box in the expectation of making the money back on software sales, and users have chipped the machines so Microsoft doesn't make any (or enough) money from this.

Linux? No, no matter how heroic the team from the Xbox Linux Project is, Microsoft is not going to lose huge swathes of revenue because all the purchasers run Linux instead and don't buy any games. Its Xbox software licensing regime will be disrupted (as is the case already for many players in the entertainment business) if it becomes less possible or impossible to divvy up licences by territory and police it via regionalisation, but one does wonder why the law should have to shore up something as daft and artificial as regionalisation.

Steve clearly thinks it should, and he's by no means alone here. Console manufacturers can be pretty keen on you being able to build on their systems, but only if you build on them using the official add-ons - they tend to come over all repressive if you start venturing into the land of no user serviceable parts with a soldering iron and a screwdriver.

Microsoft however is particularly interesting here, because it's coming from the PC end of the business, the Xbox is a PC really, and we're seeing the company develop and transition PC-style approaches to security and licensing into the console arena. And assuredly, some of these will be going back in the other direction, and if you consider the new Ts & Cs covering machine IDs, DRM and the like, you can see it's already happening.

That's before you take into account the possibility/probability that platforms such as Tablet PC, Mira and Windows XP Media Center will close up along the lines of games consoles. It's been suggested to us several times recently that there is a growing need for a Free Hardware Foundation - this is beginning to have a certain logic, we think. ®

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