The Null Device

Sustainable, hackable MP3 players

Rockbox, the open-source Archos Jukebox Recorder firmware that wipes the floor with Archos' official firmware, is now able to be flashed into ROM. This makes it quicker to start (no loading from hard disk); but it also completely eliminates the need for Archos' firmware, the last proprietary component of the Jukebox.

I was thinking a few days ago that the Jukebox Recorder hardware appears to be made entirely from commodity parts; it basically consists of a laptop hard disk, a USB-IDE interface chip, a MP3 decoder chip, a display, some buttons, and an off-the-shelf Hitachi RISC CPU to control everything, with no custom chips anywhere. Even the batteries are commodity AA-size NiMH cells (unlike Apple's 18-month, non-removable iPod battery). Now that there is complete open-source firmware that runs on the hardware, how long until third-party manufacturers start cobbling together Archos-like MP3 players running Rockbox, or possibly improved hardware running hacked versions of Rockbox? Imagine dozens of small south-east-Asian tech firms making their own 20-60Gb MP3 players and selling them at the cutthroat discounts that Flash-based MP3 players have come down to (the most basic 128Mb ones can be had for just over A$100, with ones with displays and recording starting at A$125), and Rockbox becoming the Linux of HD-based music player firmware (Linux was once bound to one hardware platform; the IBM 386 PC architecture).

So we'll have MP3 players which anybody can build from off-the-shelf parts given the right equipment (you could possibly do so at home, if you really wanted to), which is not controlled by any one company, and whose firmware is entirely hackable. Which sounds very good to me.

(Of course, the Archos Jukebox hardware is rather inflexible; for instance, it has only one MP3 decoder chip wired directly to the headphone socket, which immediately rules out things such as crossfading or playing non-MP3 audio. But that's not to say that third-party variations on the theme wouldn't remedy this.)

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