Phones as Hackable Platforms

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 24 November 2004

Marko Ahtisaari wants the wireless industry to embrace its users as developers.

The mobile industry is stuck. But don’t start printing out those resumes quite yet. A new romance may give the industry just the kick it needs, if we are to put faith in the words of the intriguing director and head of user experience at Nokia’s Insight and Foresight unit, Marko Ahtisaari.

In a talk he provocatively called “Phones as a Hackable Platform,” the Helsinki-born technologist shared a dark and rarely uttered truth: “If we look at this industry and the speed of innovation, innovation has largely stopped.” Speaking before a packed house of open minds at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (where I run The Narrative Lab), he did not equivocate: “What have we had? We’ve had mobile voice, which was the lead application and still is the lead application. Texting, person-to-person, one-to-one messaging. And, recently, the only dominant functionality that we’ve added is the camera. We need new innovation on this platform for it to grow.”

Ahtisaari understands that the most promising and compelling software innovations have always been born in the hands of playful users. Now more than ever, the mobile industry needs to put some faith in a history borne out during the Internet era. Just as the most successful companies in the software and networking markets have already learned, often the best way to develop a product is to let the users do it. In other words, follow the lead of the alpha-geeks, or those Japanese schoolgirls that Wired and other industry magazines have begun to champion so enthusiastically.

Defining hacking loosely as the “ability to manipulate a product either through hardware or software to one’s own ends and apparently in a way that no one has guessed before,” Ahtisaari offered appropriately diverse illustrations of this kind of creativity.

He began his survey with the oft-told legend of how SMS technology ascended from obscurity to the commonplace. SMS, as Ahtisaari argued, was a hack in the sense that it was “a technology that was adopted for use not intended by its creators.” SMS was originally intended for network communication functions, like voicemail notification. Basically, a text-based way of saying “you’ve got mail.” That’s about as far as developers’ imaginations went. The ensuing spread of interpersonal communication via SMS was a source of much confusion for the mobile industry, which had previously assumed that extended SMS communication would prove too difficult for widespread adoption. Having recognized the grand underestimation at hand, however, the industry quickly moved to embrace the phenomenon, and began to charge for it, of course.

The boom of what Ahtisaari calls “personalization hacks” followed much the same path. The industry certainly hadn’t predicted such boundless enthusiasm for sounds, graphics and themes but quickly capitalized on the excitement once they realized, as Ahtisaari explains, that “personalization has an intense value and people are willing to pay for it.” Ringtones are the most promising form of content to emerge this way so far; users now pay up to three dollars for a ringtone compared to 99 cents for the entire actual song from which it was derived. It’s the kind of phenomenon that is essentially unpredictable and would seem absurd to any business development department. In terms of social currency, however, it makes absolute sense: a ringtone is a way of sharing music instead of simply listening to it. But such observations are a lot easier to make in hindsight, once the user base has gone ahead and hacked their way to the most sensible and creative applications of the technology we’ve sold them.

Ahtisaari seems to be at pains to remind an industry now gloating about the profitability of ringtones that they really began as a hack. It was back in July of 1999 that a 23-year-old British phone hacker realized how a feature on Nokia handsets allowing companies to create tones and graphics could be hacked by users to add their own ringtones. Once the industry caught on and created easier ways for everyday users to exploit the same code as the hacker community, the market surged from fringe to mainstream in less than a year.

The industry would do well to reflect on these trends. If Ahtisaari is right – and I think he is – then the best way for the mobile industry to lift itself to the next level would be to encourage and foster a hacking culture around mobile technology and, moreover, to welcome it when it arises inadvertently. Established brands will not be undermined; they will ultimately benefit through their selection, support and outright promotion of the hacks that work.

Granted, Ahtisaari’s concept of hacking is a bit diluted or even defanged, and betrays a potentially limiting commercial bias. Not all hacks can or should support the market. But the market doesn’t always support the best development path for technology, either. In the long run, the creativity of a bottom-up community of enthusiastic users is a resource too valuable for any industry to quell.

Following Ahtisaari’s logic, the most appealing sorts of phones and wireless devices might be based on the model of a sandbox, offering all the core and advanced functionalities but highly amenable to customization and play. The hackers on which the future of mobile might depend need an open and flexible phone and platform, with devices that offer them unfettered access to the operating system’s guts.

What about security, you ask? Whose security? Hacker-users understand the risks of mucking about with their technology. The only thing at stake the security of ill-conceived business plans that lock users out of their own phones. These short-sighted restrictions are the chief obstacle to the culture of innovation Ahtisaari envisions. To think of how many deeply interesting mobile hacks have been lost to this proprietary paranoia makes me shudder.

After all, worst case, if some of these hacks actually work, it will still be up to the industry to develop and roll out more durable versions of these ideas, that are capable of taking the abuse of a mass market of paying users. That’s what industries are for.