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Microsoft Left Kinect Open on Purpose, Has Not Reversed Course

With hackers around the world gleefully hacking away at its Kinect add-on for the Xbox 360, Microsoft claims that it left the device "open" expressly for this purpose, knowing that developer interest in the device would drive further sales.

Many have reported that this stance was a reversal of its first public comments on the hacks, in which the software giant said it would work with law enforcement to prevent tampering. But that's not what happened: Microsoft originally stated that it didn't want hackers to modify the Kinect itself, and would work to prevent that. It has no issue with those seeking to create software interfaces to Kinect, which comes with an industry standard USB cable, allowing it to be connected to a PC.

Here's the original statement Microsoft made regarding Kinect hacking. "Microsoft does not condone the modification of its products. With Kinect, Microsoft built in numerous hardware and software safeguards designed to reduce the chances of product tampering. Microsoft will continue to make advances in these types of safeguards and work closely with law enforcement and product safety groups to keep Kinect tamper-resistant."

This hasn't changed: The software giant still does not want individuals or companies tampering with the Kinect hardware or its internal software, and will seek to prevent that. But it has no problem with people creating open-source drivers for the Kinect so that it works with PC operating systems like Linux. And that's exactly what's happened.

"Kinect was not actually hacked," Microsoft's Alex Kipman told NPR this past week. "Hacking would mean that someone got to our algorithms that sit inside the Xbox and was able to actually use them, which hasn't happened, or it means that you put a device between the sensor and the Xbox for means of cheating, which also has not happened."

"What has happened is someone wrote an open-source driver for PCs that essentially opens the USB connection, which we didn't protect, by design, and reads the inputs from the sensor," he explained. "The sensor has eyes and ears, and that's a whole lot of noise that someone needs to take and turn into signal." When asked if Microsoft intended to pursue the people behind this code, Kipman said "no, absolutely not."

Faced with the supposed contradiction, the gullible tech press almost universally accused Microsoft of "reversing course" on this one. But that's not what happened, and Microsoft's public statements about Kinect hacking are not in any way contradictory. Sorry, conspiracy theorists.

As for the open-source drivers, hacker Héctor Martín Cantero won a web contest worth $3000 to become the first to turn Microsoft's video game accessory into a Linux peripheral of sorts. It doesn't do much yet, but the open-source community seems curiously excited by Microsoft's hardware, and also curiously unable to summon much in the way of thanks to the software giant for not stomping on their plans. That's an inconvenient truth that the mainstream tech rags seem to be ignoring as well.

Meanwhile, "The Motley Fool" this week described Kinect as a "home run," noting that Microsoft was on track to sell over 5 million units by the end of the year. "That's a tremendous success story, because selling add-on hardware like Kinect is a challenging field," analyst Eric Bleeker says. "Kinect should key a strong holiday season for Microsoft." He also noted that Xbox user engagement was far more dramatic than anything seen with Apple's iPhone, the current industry darling. "Advertisers drool at the engagement level of smartphone users with their apps, but that's nothing compared with the engagement Microsoft sees with its Xbox Live users," he added. "The average Xbox Live user spends 40 hours a month in the platform, dwarfing reports of iPhone users spending 30 minutes a day engaged with apps."

One can only imagine the effect that dozens of Linux users will have on Kinect usage. Regardless, kudos to Microsoft for leaving its new device open. Someone has to say it.

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