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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  1. icon
    Paul (profile), 24 May 2011 @ 3:15pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    Richard (profile), 24 May 2011 @ 3:19pm

    At a loss

    I'm at a loss to know why TI is doing this - unlike Sony they've not got a "sell the h/w chewap and then tax the s/w to profit" strategy to protect - so why?
    It makes no sense.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Tim, 24 May 2011 @ 3:24pm

    TI's customers are schools, not hackers. They want to be able to guarantee to schools that when students are using a TI calculator they will be unable to cheat with it by installing unapproved software.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    Mike42 (profile), 24 May 2011 @ 3:38pm


    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-launc hpad
    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...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2011 @ 3:39pm


    the joke is on pretty much everyone, then, as theres no real need in schools for a calculator sophisticated enough to be hackable.

    But that is a compelling point of view.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    drone, 24 May 2011 @ 3:39pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2011 @ 3:40pm

    Then shouldn't the schools NOT allow programmable/downloadable calculators?

    What kind of software would be used to cheat?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    Andrew F (profile), 24 May 2011 @ 4:18pm


    How would you use unauthorized software to cheat?

    Not that I ever did this, but if it's something like storing formulas on your calculator that you were supposed to "memorize", I remember it being pretty easy to store such stuff without ever needing to install or jailbreak anything.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Andrew F (profile), 24 May 2011 @ 4:21pm


    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Marcus Carab (profile), 24 May 2011 @ 4:40pm

    The physicists I know all use a terminal with a Python interpreter instead of a programmable calculator. I don't imagine TI calculators will be relevant much longer if they keep up this attitude.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    aj00200 (profile), 24 May 2011 @ 4:41pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Gentleman Ryan, 24 May 2011 @ 4:43pm

    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).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    Paul (profile), 24 May 2011 @ 4:55pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    Kevin (profile), 24 May 2011 @ 4:55pm

    3 weeks, I give it 3 weeks before TI coders are going to be at work on the next set of firmware to counteract yet ANOTHER break.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    aj00200 (profile), 24 May 2011 @ 4:56pm

    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

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. icon
    Jay (profile), 24 May 2011 @ 4:58pm

    Re: Re:


    The maths and sciences, you NEED a TI 89 or higher.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    fogbugzd (profile), 24 May 2011 @ 5:05pm


    I predict that it will be three weeks before TI has to start the next round, but only if it takes TI execs two and a half weeks to notice that the new hack has appeared.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    aj00200 (profile), 24 May 2011 @ 5:25pm


    Actually, I think one of the things you can do with alternate firmware is install a Linux kernel. Linux normally supports Python very well (however, I can't speak for the calculator version of it).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. icon
    aj00200 (profile), 24 May 2011 @ 5:27pm

    Re: Re:

    From the way it looks, it could take a bit longer than half a week to find a new bug in the protection. I'm sure one exists and will be found, but they are likely to have been more careful this time after their last failed attempt.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2011 @ 8:16pm

    TI has Miscalculated

    It sounds like TI has continued to mis calculate.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. icon
    Marcus Carab (profile), 24 May 2011 @ 9:03pm

    Re: Re:

    A Python calculator would be pretty damn cool... and that's exactly why TI should be embracing the modding community!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, 24 May 2011 @ 10:26pm

    Re: A Python calculator would be pretty damn cool...

    You can already have Python in the palm of your hand. The most irritating omission right now is no line-editing, but I can write multiline scripts in a separate text editor and run them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    Cory Vanderyacht, 24 May 2011 @ 11:20pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    Cory Vanderyacht, 24 May 2011 @ 11:25pm

    Response to: Cory Vanderyacht on May 24th, 2011 @ 11:20pm

    Last sentence should read "mod community can have their cake too." Sorry, I'm on a really crappy wap phone right now and it sucks at predictive text.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. icon
    Niall (profile), 25 May 2011 @ 3:36am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Funny, I seem to remember managing an astrophysics degree without needing a portable supercomputer. As did everyone before me in the pre-calculator years. Or are we talking about engineering students who need some sort of physical 'prop'? :)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. icon
    JustMe (profile), 25 May 2011 @ 5:01am

    Oblig. XKCD link

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. icon
    Phillip Vector (profile), 25 May 2011 @ 5:38am

    TI still in business?

    I thought they died off years ago.

    Yes. I'm serious.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. identicon
    Andrew D. Todd, 25 May 2011 @ 5:51am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. icon
    DannyB (profile), 25 May 2011 @ 6:04am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30. icon
    DannyB (profile), 25 May 2011 @ 6:07am

    Re: Genius

    Not necessarily.

    TI's calculator business is a monopoly. It probably brings in huge profits due to monopoly rents on a constant new influx of buyers with little choice and little effective competition.

    It doesn't hurt that standardized tests, and even some courses and textbooks specify TI calculators -- even specific models.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31. icon
    DannyB (profile), 25 May 2011 @ 6:10am


    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32. identicon
    ringbearer31, 25 May 2011 @ 6:26am


    man, sure TI is okay at making things, I'm on a robotics team and they make good motor controllers, but it seems like they forget that these things are made for people, who are going to want to have fun.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33. identicon
    Albe23, 25 May 2011 @ 8:56am

    Rocking CASIO

    I've never liked TI's calculators after using a CASIO. The interface is far more intuitive with a CASIO and they are either just as fast or faster than a comparable TI. Plus they are always cheaper. Besides CASIO is the only one of the buch actually innovating, look at their Prizm which TI is running damage control over and is just copying.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34. icon
    Tom Landry (profile), 25 May 2011 @ 4:17pm

    I don't get this. If I pay several hundred dollars for something I'm going to do whatever the hell I want with it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35. identicon
    Kazuko Ross, 9 Oct 2011 @ 10:39am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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