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Rockbox Developers Talk Open Source Firmware 179

Posted by timothy
from the be-thankful-for-their-hobby dept.
angry tapir writes "I recently caught up with some of the key developers of Rockbox: An open source firmware replacement for the stock firmware shipped on MP3 players. The project, which has been active for over a decade, currently supports products from more than half a dozen manufacturers, including Apple, Arhcos, iRiver and Toshiba. It involves extensive reverse engineering to figure out how the devices' stock firmwares operate, as well as the challenge of developing for greatly varied targets. You can read the interview here (or the full Q&As with the project's founder and some of the developers involved in it)."
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Rockbox Developers Talk Open Source Firmware

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  • by lkcl (517947) <lkcl@lkcl.net> on Monday January 30, 2012 @05:58AM (#38863321) Homepage

    "Over time it's only grown to be even more challenging as over the years the companies involved have gotten more and more 'secret'. In the beginning you could actually read markers on chips in the devices and then search for the chips online and find data sheets for them that told us how to program them."

    i've done reverse-engineering, and yes it is exciting, but it doesn't really get results: it's damn hard work, and for what? you're always behind the times - never innovating, always riding on the coat-tails of companies who, as linus notes on page 2 of the interview, end up making hardware design mistakes, and you invested _how_ much time in order to find that out?

    so we set up http://rhombus-tech.net/ [rhombus-tech.net] as an initiative to create open hardware that is actually desirable as mass-volume products, with free software developers being actively engaged and consulted on the hardware _and_ software development at every step of the way.

    there are several such initiatives that could really do with working together - the most recent one is the plasma "spark" tablet - except that there, unfortunately, they appear to have picked a tablet from a company that is known to be willfully committing GPL violations (zenithink). not too many people spotted that one, in amongst the otherwise-exciting news reports, whoops.

    • by Jojoba86 (1496883) on Monday January 30, 2012 @06:25AM (#38863407)
      Why mod this up? It is an uniformed post from someone trying to push their own project. If the parent read TFA then they would have realized that Rockbox has got results from the initial days of when it was on the Archos Jukebox players, and for most players is ahead of the proprietary firmware (especially for those who are fans of open standards such as ogg). Rockbox is sufficiently mature that support for it is a factor when I'm looking at mp3 players.
      • by lkcl (517947)

        you've misunderstood, jojoba86. where are the devices which can be purchased off-the-shelf with rockbox linux pre-installed? where in the interview did it say "the rockbox developers have been working with manufacturer X on a deal which will bring you open devices"? in fact, the interview tells you a complete opposite story, doesn't it? it tells you that the developers are forced to perform reverse-engineering, forced to work for months *without* cooperation from the very people who actually created the

        • Just a couple of small corrections: First, Rockbox is not Linux. Second, in some cases hardware manufacturers have worked with the Rockbox team (I'm thinking specifically of AustriaMicroSystems here, but others have too to various degrees.)
        • by Rockoon (1252108)
          Speaking of out of date, Rockbox doesnt support any iPod generations released after 2006.. thats 6 years ago.

          I picked up a used Nano 3g (released in 2007) about 3 or so years ago and have given up waiting for Rockbox support.
          • Hate to agree, but I have to. I've been using my 'iPod classic' (still the only HDD-based non-PMP I can find) since 2008, but it's apparently locked down too hard for any Rockbox love.

          • by emj (15659)

            There are lots of other possibilities e.g. the Sansa clip i a very good player and it supports Rockbox.

            • I bricked a Clip with Rockbox. I haven't gotten around to figuring out if I can unbrick it.

              Clip+, which is probably what you're actually referring to, comes with a MicroSD slot and supports OGG out of the box. RB supports it too, but I've been leery since the Clip incident.

              The Clip+ is an excellent device with or without Rockbox.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by lkcl (517947)

        "from someone trying to push their own project. "

        it's not "my" project. as a software engineer who knows the value of "egoless programming", which specifically trains people to avoid the use of personal pronouns, i cannot let this one go. allow me to make a correction for you:

        "...from someone letting people know that there exists *a* project, which is community-based, that is actually set up as a Community Interest Company (google it)..."

      • by smpoole7 (1467717)

        > Why mod this up?

        I certainly found it "Interesting" and "Insightful." I, too, have done reverse engineering, and it's a gold-plated pain in the butt. He's dead right about that. The key point -- and one that I emphatically agree with -- is that when you're forced to reverse engineer, you're almost by default behind the curve.

        Software can be copyrighted, but unlike most other copyrighted works, copies of the original aren't always available to the general public. With a book, periodical, or song, I could

      • I would think an initiative to create open hardware would be exactly what /. readers want to hear about. I know I do.

        The Rockbox team have been very successful in getting their software to work on a huge variety of devices, but that doesn't contradict anything lkcl said. It took a long time for RB to be ported to the Fuze, for instance.

    • I recognize the letters LKCL anywhere. DCE/RPC over SMB and LKCL are etched in my brain even though I probably last looked at it 7-8 years ago. Thank you for that one.

      • by lkcl (517947)

        :)

      • I recognize the letters LKCL anywhere. DCE/RPC over SMB and LKCL are etched in my brain even though I probably last looked at it 7-8 years ago. Thank you for that one.

        Yeah, ditto. Reverse engineering the NT crypto handshake was non-trivial. Glad to hear Luke's still active!

  • OSS Rocks! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Digital Vomit (891734) on Monday January 30, 2012 @06:01AM (#38863335) Homepage Journal

    A friend of mine has a cheap mp3 player that he bought a couple of years ago. He flashed it with Rockbox and has had his battery life more than quadrupled!

    I don't know why companies are so loathe to take advantage of free software like Rockbox and, instead, insist on writing their own, lousy firmware. There are people out there who will do it better, and for free!

    Just imagine how much better things could be if closed source software were outlawed...

    • Re:OSS Rocks! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ByOhTek (1181381) on Monday January 30, 2012 @06:10AM (#38863359) Journal

      My first comment was going to be "because nobody but a major geek wants an MP3 player with a UI that looks that bad."

      But I hadn't seen the UI in a few years. I looked on Google and found some screenshots. Damn it looks nice now.

      Anyway, there is still the answer that "the companies want to control it". With the flexibility available from Rockbox, it would be much harder to control the user environment, which would make end user support much more difficult.

      • by vlm (69642)

        Not even close, its a time to market problem. Classic cathedral vs bazaar thing. The mfgr wants to ship something that technical barely legally works as fast as freaking possible, unless they're apple. As long as it doesn't get returned to the store as "broken", its good enough. Only the rockbox people and apple want to make the "perfect" device no matter how long it takes.

        That brings up the marketing problem, that "noname mp3 player inc" markets to people who want the cheapest or are giving gifts or ju

        • Re:OSS Rocks! (Score:4, Insightful)

          by ByOhTek (1181381) on Monday January 30, 2012 @10:08AM (#38864775) Journal

          The market isn't limited to "no name" and "Apple". MS, Sony and Creative are in there, at least. Although, Sony fits your no-name description to a T. Cowon, also a fairly unknown name, also has made good players in the past. Some people get these Non-apple players, believe it or not, because they have features that the apple player lacks.

      • I used Rockbox on my iRiver back around 2005-ish. The UI was a massive improvement on the default even then. It might not have been a great improvement to the iOS of the time (I don't know) but it was totally usable.
    • Re:OSS Rocks! (Score:5, Informative)

      by jeti (105266) on Monday January 30, 2012 @08:14AM (#38863863) Homepage

      I once worked for a company like the one that provided your cheap mp3 player. There were several reasons for not being more open:
      1. The only legal music stores at that time insisted on DRM, which is largely incompatible with open source.
      2. Chip manufacturers only provide drivers in binary form. They also have extensive confidentiality agreements that made it impossible to release relevant code produced by us.
      3. Documenting and cleaning up code, reviewing licenses and releasing or integrating code is a considerable workload and has to be justifiable. I think people overestimate the resources that small companies can spend on firmware. The firmware for some of our products was implemented by three or four people.
      4. Our boss hated the idea that our competitors could get a leg up by using software that he paid for being developed.

      • there's at least a few more reasons why companies do not want to release source. here's a big one that few mention: when you release source, you can be 'infringing' on someone's algorithm or code snippet. or approach. or maybe your code used rounded corners (ok, I'm not serious about that one).

        the point is, whether you plan to or not, you do end up using some code - code that you probably wrote entirely on your own - but it resembles an approach that someone took and they want to slap you down for using

    • by gl4ss (559668)

      *I don't know why companies are so loathe to take advantage of free software like Rockbox and, instead, insist on writing their own, lousy firmware.*

      because the company is guided by engineers who.. drummroll.. for whom the reason for being employed at said firm is writing that lousy firmware. it's not like they're going to recommend "hey, just send these specs to this guy and fire us".

  • by B1oodAnge1 (1485419) on Monday January 30, 2012 @06:14AM (#38863375)

    I've been running rock-box on a succession of Sansa mpfree players for close to 6 years now, and I love it.

    • I was going to try Rockbox on my old and battered Sandisk Fuze, but when I investigated the benefots in doing so, I saw that the Rockbox firmware actually knocks 10 hours off its battery life!

      The lesson being that YMMV.

  • I love rockbox but my gigabeat died and I need a replacement, what can I get today that'll run rockbox nicely that's >=40G ?

    Gigabeats were great but they're getting on a bit now to the point where the harddrives are dying and replacing them is more faffing than I'm interested in.

    • You can replace the hd in a Gigabeat with a CF card. You will need an adapter, but these are available on ebay.

  • I've had my iRiver for about 7 years now and it's still pretty happy. Sure, it's big and clunky and one day the HDD will fail, but when it does, I reckon I'll just put in a new one and carry on.

    I much prefer having my phone separate to my MP3 player, simply because the battery life is better and also that when I'm listening to a song I don't have it disturbed by an incoming call from a recruitment agent.

    • by rjforster (2130)

      Careful. Finding a compatible hard drive is hard and not cheap. My iRiver H340 now has a 128GB SSD but I might put the still-working HDD back as it is much less reliable now with the SSD. YMMV.

  • by jabberw0k (62554) on Monday January 30, 2012 @07:28AM (#38863661) Homepage Journal

    "Firmware" is a word like "software," "hardware," or "clothing" -- you cannot have "one firmware" and there is no such thing as plural "firmwares." You cannot have "a software" or "a clothing" -- you have a piece of software (or: a program), a piece of clothing (or: a garment), a piece of firmware (a firmware set, a firmware package, etc.).

    Please correct the article here: "how the devices' stock firmwares operate" -- that should be "...stock firmware operates..." as the device has one set of firmware, composed perhaps of several programs or packages.

    I registered on their bug tracker but cannot decipher to whom or how I should report this grammar error as a documentation flaw -- any suggestions?

    • I registered on their bug tracker but cannot decipher to whom or how I should report this grammar error as a documentation flaw -- any suggestions?

      Target their next Release Candidate.

      This is no small change since their web site is imaged and hosted on a Beowulf cluster of first generations nano iPods.

    • by El Royo (907295)
      You might be on to something if only they all ran the same firmware. In this case, it makes sense to call attention to the fact that they are all different firmwares.
      • by jabberw0k (62554)
        Does your computer run "many softwares" --? No, it runs many software packages, many software programs, many pieces of software. Do you wear different clothings? No, you wear different clothing, or different clothes.
  • I notice that there is nothing listed on the Rockbox site about Creative players. Why isn't Creative's Zen line supported? I have a Zen gen1 player I'd love to reflash with a better firmware, mostly because it sounds like fun.

    • by maeka (518272)

      Why isn't Creative's Zen line supported?

      Because nobody who has a Zen has stepped up.

  • by rjforster (2130) on Monday January 30, 2012 @08:36AM (#38863969) Journal

    I had my iRiver H340 for less than 30 minutes before it ran rockbox. At the time of purchase it was, to my knowledge, the only way to get gapless playback and high capacity (40GB isn't enough now but it was the best you could get back in the day). I've tried it with a replacement SSD but while it works it is quite flaky and needs regular resets.

    It's a shame there are very few high capacity players on the market now, I would love to get a new device which supports:
    Lots of storage. Enough to encode all my CDs and a few 'try-before-you-buy' albums. Ahem.
    Gapless.
    Bookmarking capabilities that work with all files (apparently ipods require you to define things as an audiobook before they support bookmarking)
    ogg support so I don't have to re-rip my CDs (I'd compromise on this if everything else was offered - it's only a few weeks of feeding CDs to the PC)
    No need to 'make my own playlists' or any other such carp unless I want to. Music already comes with pre-defined playlists: also known as albums.

    If this ever happens it will most likely run rockbox - I doubt the hardware manufacturers would do as good a job.

    To Linus and the rest of the rockbox devs. Seriously. Thank-you.

  • Rockbox Rules (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 30, 2012 @09:22AM (#38864259)

    I'm an AC -- always have been, always will be -- so no one will see the comment, but I have to post anyway, just to give a big thanks to the Rockbox team.

    I have an old-ish Sansa (e200), and despite the fact that it's now "ancient technology," with Rockbox, a good sized microSD card (which, BTW, wouldn't be recognized on the original firmware), and replacing the battery once, it still shines. IMO it's as good as any new shiny bling, and I'll probably have it until I do something silly like dropping it into a toilet.

    Seriously, Rockbox is a great application. With the stock firmware I would have gotten rid of it several years ago, but with Rockbox there is no need.

    I don't want -- nor need -- a smartphone. What I need is a good MP3 player, and I use it every day.

    Thanks Rockbox!

  • Long time rockbox user on sansa devices, cheap and easy and lots of storage. However once I got an android handset with good ad2p performance and some wireless headphones I found myself not using the rockbox sansa anymore. Also spotify(and many others)/network allows for the network to cover for any lack of storage. If I want better quality sound I just plug some headphones in.
    • I purchased a used iPod Video 80GB on eBay because it was supported by RockBox. I have 60+ GB of music on my iPod. A 64GB microSD card costs nearly $150; I could buy another used iPod 80GB for that money. There's no online service that would provide that much storage for free, even if my mobile provider allowed me enough bits per month and bits per second to do so. Driving 10 hours back and forth to school four to six times a year makes the iPod with Rockbox a very useful device. I'd also rather not use the

  • When I had a fifth gen ipod I used rockbox a bit. It was cool at the time and did some stuff I couldn't do otherwise on that model of ipod. (skins, gapless playback, graphic equalizer, some other stuff)

    But now I have an Samsung Galaxy s2 and I've given my kids an ipod touch each. There's no way I would replaced the GUI on those things. My eight year old kids picked the ipod Touch and never had a question about how they worked. Power Amp on the Android exceeds the functionality I had in Rockbox. I gave

  • One of the biggest advantages of Rockbox IMHO is the compressor. Hard to listen to a lot of music-- especially classical music-- in a noisy environment without some dynamic range compression.

  • I think it's a real shame that some people use an article about a successful and greatly appreciated free software project to

    a) make snide and uninformed criticisms, some even on the erroneous premise that Rockbox is a Linux based project, which it is not.

    b) assert that the RB devs have some responsibility to do something other than what they want to do and intend to do.

    c) then try to use thos unfounded complaints to turn attention to themselves and their project.

    It is *ridiculous* to criticise the RB devs

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