Palm Pre: Hacker Friendly

The Palm pre has been out and about for a while now, so stories and items about what it can do are popping up all over the place. One thing is becoming quite clear already: the Pre and its WebOS are quite hacker-friendly, and hackers have already found all sorts of ways to extend the device’s functionality.

iTunes sync

Before we get to the hacking, let’s start with the story we ran earlier about the Pre being able to sync and integrate with iTunes, allowing you to sync music and video files between iTunes and your Pre, provided they are not DRM-encumbered, of course. A few days ago, Apple responded to this news in a support document on its website:

Apple designs the hardware and software to provide seamless integration of the iPhone and iPod with iTunes, the iTunes Store, and tens of thousands of apps on the App Store. Apple is aware that some third-parties claim that their digital media players are able to sync with Apple software. However, Apple does not provide support for, or test for compatibility with, non-Apple digital media players and, because software changes over time, newer versions of Apple’s iTunes software may no longer provide syncing functionality with non-Apple digital media players.

Even though the document doesn’t specifically refer to the Pre, anyone with a half a brain can figure this one out. It basically says that the next iTunes software update will break the sync functionality. Still, Palm isn’t impressed, and Lynn Fox, former Apple employee, had a few things to say about this.

“Palm’s media sync works with the current version of iTunes,” Palm spokesperson Lynn Fox told AllThingsDigital, “If Apple chooses to disable media sync in a future version of iTunes, it will be a direct blow to their users who will be deprived of a seamless synchronization experience. However, people will have options. They can stay with the iTunes version that works to sync their music on their Pre, they can transfer the music via USB, and there are other third-party applications we could consider.”

If Apple were to disable this syncing functionality, enough alternatives remain. You can use regular USB mode to transfer content to your Pre, so why you would want to use iTunes in the first place is a mystery to me anyway. In addition, there’s DoubleTwist, which provides its own way of syncing your iTunes library with your Pre.

Hacking away!

As it turns out, the Pre is a very hacker-friendly piece of equipment, probably thanks to its Linux underpinnings and focus on web languages for programming. The first important milestone was rooting the device, which turned out to be relatively easy to accomplish. All this combined made it quite easy to start exploring the WebOS ROM image.

A few hidden features have already been found. For instance, even though Sprint doesn’t want you to see it, the Pre comes with a very detailed information pane about call duration. The code is in there, done, and working, it’s just been disabled. Also disabled, but fully functional, is functionality which allows you to add and delete pages to the launcher application.

Tethering support is another intesting little thing. The Pre dev wiki had received a notice from Palm – not from the legal team, they say – which asked them kindly not to talk about tethering support, because Sprint wouldn’t like that. The Pre dev wiki complied, as they do not want to strain their relationship with Palm.

Still, that doesn’t mean others won’t find a way to tether, and in fact, it has already been discovered how to do it. You set up an SSH tunnel to the Pre which supports running as a SOCKS proxy. You then point your browser to this proxy, and you can tether away.

Other cool hacks include running Doom on the Pre, a NES emulator, and a native Linux VNC client.

Over-the-air updates

The Pre comes with a relatively unique feature which allows Palm to update the WebOS “over-the-air”. A support document on Palm’s website explains that these updates are mandatory, and will install themselves one way or the other. You can postpone the inevitable, but they will install. As PreCentral summarises:

Essentially, the Pre checks daily for updates and will download the latest updates automatically in the background. Once the update has been pulled down, it will prompt you to install. You can push the installation off if you desire, but within seven days your Pre will forcibly install the update, giving you just a ten-minute warning. Every time you charge the Pre after downloading and not installing an update it will attempt to install the update, giving you a ten minute countdown you can stop. But you can only stop the timer three times; the fourth time you start charging, the Pre will give you a ten minute ultimatum and there’s no stopping it.

While this ensures that Pre devices will remain up-to-date, control freaks might not like this behaviour. The only way to turn it off would be to hack the device, but how exactly this is to be done remains to be seen.


Do you have an iPhone, but envy the Pre? It won’t give you multitasking, and it won’t remove those annoying modal DEAL-WITH-ME-OR-ELSE dialogs, but this Pre theme for the iPhone does satisfy some of the envy…


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