Rockbox at NYLUG: Will Software Replace Hardware? Will Apps Replace Software?

NYLUG member Robert Menes presented the Rockbox open source jukebox software at the most recent meeting. The software project started in late 2001 when Bjorn Stenberg became fed up with his ARCHON MP3 player and the software was first released in 2002. The software is designed to be installed directly onto MP3 players and to add to rather than replace the existing firmware, but there are many many different MP3 players, and the project supports them to varying degrees (details on the Rockbox website).

A version of Rockbox for a particular MP3 player is deemed stable if it meets all of the following conditions: it supports the latest version number of Rockbox (currently version 3), it can be installed with the Rockbox install utility, and it has a manual. An unstable version lacks any one of these (sometimes just a manual) but it will generally work fine. An unusable version is in development and can crash.

“Can you brick your MP3 player,” one NYLUG member asked. Menes said that there is a risk when using most MP3 players, except that iPod software is “unbreakable” because iTunes can reset the player to its original state.

Menes used a very small SanDisk Sansa MP3 player running Rockbox which allowed him to use it as a clicker to control his presentation. He said that this Human Interface Device (HID) feature had been added by a student during a Google Summer of Code and then perfected by a Rockbox developer.

The Rockbox project is committed to being free GPL software and it therefore does not support DRM and can never support DRM because DRM requires that the software not be open source.

The software supports over 30 different audio formats, far too many to list here.

It is optimized to run on machines with very little power and with weak CPUs, machines running on battery power using CPUs as weak as 12 MHz.

The end of hardware?

This software project is designed for hardware that will soon cease to exist. In the future, people will use Rockbox on their laptop, netbook, or cellphone. The latest development in the Rockbox project is a port to Android that is not complete. How much hardware will be replaced by open smartphone architectures?

The port to Android is slimmer than the software that is installed on an MP3 player or PC. “We did not need to install a TCP/IP stack because the phone already has one,” Menes told me.

Developers unpacked the Rockbox software, which was a self-contained OS-to-software stack, and built universal connectors for it. Thus a stack of software was cut into pieces and the essential functions received software connectors to other parts of the phone’s OS. I think that in the future, many other pieces of software will be cut into pieces the same way.

Features

Like many open source projects, Rockbox has many more features than any closed source competitor. It can record FM radio, it can speak menus, it can deliver sound effects (including sound effects for each song), it can fade songs in and out, search files by name or by any of several tags in a surprisingly powerful database, and it can do many other things too.

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