Texas Instruments Learns Nothing, Goes After Hobbyists Again

from the nerd-rage-perk-activated dept

Via slashdot comes the news that Texas Instruments is still more than happy to piss off its most loyal users, releasing new firmware specifically to block third party programs and prevent downgrading the system to something more flexible:

"Texas Instruments has struck back against Nspire gamers and hackers with even stronger anti-downgrade protection in OS 3.0.2, after the TI calculator hacking community broke the anti-downgrade protection found in OS 2.1 last summer and the new one in OS 3.0.1 a month ago. In addition to that, in OS 3.0.1 the hacker community found Lua programming support and created games and software using it. Immediately, TI retaliated by adding an encryption check to make sure those third-party generated programs won’t run on OS 3.0.2."

So then, business as usual for TI, who a couple of years back sent out DMCA takedown notices in an effort to remove posted code that allowed their scientific calculators to run custom software. Having learned nothing from that situation (other than perhaps "misguided might makes ‘right’"), TI has decided to bypass the broken DMCA process (well, "broken" as in anybody can use it for just about anything, not that it doesn’t work) and just go ahead and brick the modified calculators.

Not only have they learned nothing from their own experience, but they’ve completely missed any sort of cautionary notes from the epic saga of "Sony vs. The h4x0rz," in which a console manufacturer unwisely removed functionality that users paid for with a fatuous "update," only to find themselves staring down the barrel of an enterprising jailbreaker. And then there was that whole thing about their network being taken down (still ongoing). I’m sure TI will be fine, though. After all, it has no online community to protect, having shooed most of them away two years ago. And the Sony story isn’t over yet, so there’s always a chance that forcing limitations on your die-hard supporters will result in more sales.

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Companies: texas instruments

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Comments on “Texas Instruments Learns Nothing, Goes After Hobbyists Again”

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Paul (profile) says:

Ah, if they couldn't learn from the 99/4A ....

Many here will not be old enough to have watched TI lose so many markets due to their closed systems. The TI 99/4A (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_Instruments_TI-99/4A) was a great little device, only TI refused to allow third parties to write code for it.

It died.

TI also had a good horse in the race against the IBM-PC, but again closed system ideas killed that market for TI as well.

TI makes too much money from IP licensing. They just can’t imagine the idea of making a product that customers can get behind and make successful.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: It does make sense

Not that I like it, but here is how I see it from their POV.

TI is a monopolist in the education calculator business. The compute horsepower and display are downright puny for the price compared to other PDA’s, phones, etc.

Their calculators are sold at high prices. Course work and textbooks assume you’re using a TI calculator. Standardized tests only allow specific calculators to be used during testing — in particular certain TI models.

They also have a constant influx of new customers. New middle school, high school and college students that buy the “right” calculator for their grade level.

The TI-89 is a cool CAS calculator. I’ve watched the price of it for over a decade now. Fixed at $150 for a long time. A couple years ago it dropped to about $142 and has stayed there. This despite increasing technology, moore’s law, etc.

That was background. So why protect their firmware?

With powerful calculators, it is possible to cheat on tests. You could embed lots of crib notes into your calculator. It would even be possible on some models to communicate with other calculator users. People who want to cheat, especially at college level, are willing to go to lots of trouble and expense to succeed at cheating.

TI also doesn’t like the image of their calculators being used for gaming. Especially in class. This might give instructors a bad taste for allowing TI calculators in the classroom.

So for those reasons, TI tries to make sure their calculator can only be used for what it was designed for: extracting monopoly prices in the education calculator market.

Hope that helps.

aj00200 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Yes, it is still possible to store formulas, notes. etc on your calculator. You can even store custom programs on the calculator that you download off the Internet. However, what TI is blocking is custom firmware. Writing custom firmware would allow someone to easily add additional functionality to the calculator which is not included by default without writing a slow and clunky TI-BASIC program. In essence, you can add new functionality to a calculator, but it does not add cheating functionality that couldn’t be replicated otherwise.

This custom firmware is not a threat to TI as they still get the same amount of sales. Someone still has to buy the calculator to install other firmware. I as well as many others in the TI homebrew development community are quite confused as to why they don’t like custom firmware.

Paul (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

There was no ban on programmable calculators when I was in calculus in 1979 and 1980. So I wrote a routine for my programmable TI calculator that would estimate the area under the curve of an arbitrary function. I used this to test numerically my integrals as I went along.

Was this cheating? Well…. not technically as there were no rules (at the time) broken, but you can’t do this today (in most calculus classes).

At the same time, learning how to efficiently check one’s work as one goes along was a skill I still use today.

Andrew F (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Thought: Maybe schools don’t like kids being able to install games on their calculators? Not cheating per se, but I could see an administrator being annoyed with that sort of thing.

Of course, this is a little silly now that your phone is probably a better gaming platform than the calculator, but I do remember at one time that mobile phones were banned from schools too.

aj00200 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Actually, games can be installed on the calculators even without alternate firmware. In fact, I have written a game or two my self. I have also written programs for TI calculators which do large portions of geometry and Algebra II automatically. Sadly, most of these were lost when I changed the batteries, but they are still possible.

There are some great games available for the calculator. More info about programming on the calculators and some of the games for them can be found at http://www.tibasicdev.wikidot.com

Mike42 (profile) says:


So they make this kit to compete with the Arduino, at about 1/10th the price: http://robotbox.net/blog/gallamine/ti-unveils-ultra-low-cost-msp430-microcontroller-kit-called-launchpad
Then, they piss off the very same people by bricking their flagship product? I can see a board meeting where the VP in charge of microcontrollers strangles the VP in charge of calculators…

drone says:

Not quite the whole story...

I think Tim has it right here. Consider for a moment their drivers are different for different products. Perhaps they’re encouraging the calculator hackers to move to the Panda or Beagle board projects, which encourage this behavior (and are sponsored by TI), so they can continue to satisfy the needs of their educational clients.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I disagree.

As long as courses, textbooks and standardized tests only allow certain calculators, or even specify only certain calculators are allowed, sometimes even specific TI models, I think TI’s education calculator monopoly is secure.

It’s interesting how in the field, people use real CAS and other software on laptops rather than pocket calculators. Yet in education those CAS calculators reign supreme.

Gentleman Ryan says:

Unauthorized Software

Being still of the age were the TI-84+ SE/ NSPIRE are still required for education, I can tell you that what TI is doing has nothing to do with stopping kids from cheating or installing games, sheerly because the tools required to do that are actually built into the calculator, in the form of it’s built in BASIC editor (and excellent way to make dummy programs filled with formulas and notes) and Assembly programming capabilities. In my humble opinion, TI is simply going overboard in protecting the rights to it’s most well-known Line of products (to non-hardware hackers that is).

Cory Vanderyacht says:

I would have to agree that TI is most worried about the possibility of losing their certification for standardized testing. Even though the calculator does let you store games and other codes that you could cheat with, even with standard firmware, it will obey a full reset. When I was in high school the teachers would reset our calculators before any test that we were allowed to use a graphing calculator on. A hacked OS could be designed to fake or ignore this process. (although in fairness I was able to write a program in TI Basic that could simulate the process well enough to fool all my teachers and the ACT and SAT observers, not for cheating purposes but simply because I kept so much on my calculator I got sick of having to restore backups from my computer every other night). If TI lost certification for standardized testing it would destroy one of their most profitable divisions, so although I disagree with total protectionism in most cases, I understand TI’s actions in this case. Now instead of being over protective, what they ought to do is build a hardware activated reset into the calculator that can be triggered on power up that completely restores the calculator to factory defaults from a non editable memory. Then tester could reset the calculator prior to any test requiring clean calculators, and the one ammunity can have their able too.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Texas Instruments Should Move to Incorporate the Full Testing System.

Texas Instruments seems to be locked into what, in aerospace, would be called a “coffin corner.” Standardized testing is eventually going to go over to the computer anyway, for reasons of administrative convenience. Any tool the student is permitted to use will be on the screen anyway, and there will be no use of paper whatsoever. No books, no test booklets, no scratch paper, no electronic devices, nada. That gives the invigilator a clear “bright line” to uphold, especially when people are taking tests in different subjects, side by side. The test-taker either has a clean desk, or he doesn’t.

In standardized testing as it presently exists, you need a calculator to reduce calculations on paper to numerical form, so that you can indicate which of four or five numerical answers is the right one. In an ideal computer math testing system, you don’t do that. You drag mathematical expressions around the screen with the mouse, inserting them into each other, combining them, etc., in short, doing something rather like programming, or playing chess. For example, in ninth-grade algebra, you can have a program which automatically generates problems of the form:


using a random number generator to get a,b, c, and x, and setting d to match. The program can sieve to insure that these numbers are chosen in such a way that intermediate results fall within desired limits.A sample session would look like the following:

Computer: 11*x+7=6*x+27, what to do?
Student: -6*x
Computer: 11*x-6*x+7=6*x-6*x+27, 6*x-6*x= (6-6)*x=0, 11*x-6*x=?
Student: (11-6)*x
Computer: (11-6)*x=?
Student: 5*x
Computer: 5*x+7=27, what to do?
Student: -7
Computer: 5*x+7-7=27-7, 7-7=0, 27-7=?
Student: 20
Computer: 5*x=20, what to do?
Student: /5
Computer: 5/5*x=20/5, 5/5=1, 20/5=?
Student: 4
Computer: x=4 for: 11*x+7=6*x+27.
[door opens, small piece of hard candy lands on desktop.]

With a somewhat more aggressive student:

Computer: 11*x+7=6*x+27, what to do?
Student: -6*x, 11*x-6*x=(11-6)*x=5*x
Computer: 11*x-6*x+7=6*x-6*x+27, 6*x-6*x= (6-6)*x=0, 11*x-6*x=(11-6)*x=5*x [GOOD, GOOD, GOOD]
Computer: 5*x+7=27, what to do?
Student: -7, 27-7=20
Computer: 5*x+7-7=27-7, 7-7=0, 27-7=20 [GOOD, GOOD]
Computer: 5*x=20, what to do?
Student: /5, 20/5=4
Computer: 5/5*x=20/5, 5/5=1, 20/5=4 [GOOD,GOOD]
Computer: x=4 for: 11*x+7=6*x+27.
[door opens, two small pieces of hard candy land on desktop.] (fair is fair)

What Texas Instruments might produce is a self-contained examination-room terminal, with as few potential vulnerabilities as possible, at the cost of reduced capability (no USB ports, keyboard and mouse plug in via PS/2 ports, no storage devices, etc.). This terminal plugs into a matching server, via a port which can never be superuser/root on the server. And so on and so forth. The system would be produced in comparatively small numbers, and would command a premium price.

The same hardware system could be used to test students in a foreign language. There would be a different program, and the student would use the mouse to position the cursor at various points in blank lines between lines of the foreign language, and type in translations. The student would not be not allowed to have a dictionary, but he could right-click on words to “concede” them, and cause glosses to appear. The penalty for conceding a word would depend on how rare it was, and on how many words the student had to concede altogether.

The new-model standardized test would not have a single multiple-choice question in it. For quantitative subjects, the testing program would make the student work problems and look over his shoulder as he did so. For verbal subjects, it could require the student to type things into the computer, and even if a human grader was not economically feasible, the student’s typed input could at least be fed into a program which statistically compared it to a rubric.

Kazuko Ross (user link) says:

Re: Texas Instruments Should Move to Incorporate the Full Testing System.

I can see the standardized testing process becoming exactly as you describe. If students do not learn the testing medium (e.g. computer or testing software), what happens then? I guess that learning how to use the testing medium is just as important as actually learning the course material too. I guess the computer revolution will be complete at that stage and all the dinosaurs will be gone by then.

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