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Hacking for Humanity
Old-school definitions of hacking are slipping away.

Lost in the hype of the next, latest, greatest release of virtually any tablet wannabe is the fact that Microsoft has continued to build on its quite attractive figure of eleven million Kinects in market and growing. The product's remarkable user experience is responsible, in part, for its success.

But that isn't the whole story behind the Kinect sales number: When Microsoft released the product on November 4th, 2010, my friends Phil Torrone and Limor Fried at Adafruit Industries offered $3,000 to the first person who could hack the Kinect and post the information to GitHub, a public repository for code. Eleven days later, when the hack appeared, officials at Microsoft didn't go nuts. They actually went on National Public Radio to embrace the deed.

Torrone, who is creative director at Adafruit, as well as a senior editor of Make magazine, says that Microsoft is smart to embrace hacking's benefit as a corporate development tool. "Microsoft quickly realized that user innovation was helping, not hurting, its biggest product launch in recent years," he says. "Within weeks, there were dozens of examples of makers, hackers, artists, engineers and tinkerers doing things that even Microsoft didn't expect. I think we'll see an entire industry of commercializing experiments into games and experiences for Kinect users."

But in June, people began to really sit up and take notice when researchers at the University of Bern, Switzerland, released a six-minute video of an interface utilizing the Kinect and the Apple OS that allowed radiologists and surgeons to read and interpret MRI data without touching any hard interface. It was more than an interesting jump. The benefit? Not breaking a zone of sterility once a surgery has begun by allowing surgical teams to go back and forth to MRI data continuously during the procedure. The MRI scans and data could be called up, examined, sliced, rotated, and flown-through exactly as on keyboard and mouse, but with gestures and hand-motions only -- and while wearing surgical garb.

The Kinect story illustrates the fact that hacking is evolving from a destructive force in business into a creative one that can help companies drive product and brand development. Hacking offers a way for hardware and software developers to build products for the future without incurring the high costs of development. This type of activity -- productive in the deepest sense of the word -- is being enabled through marketplaces such as Binpress, an eBay-like site on which programmers buy and sell source code.

A product's "long-tail" possibility -- that is, its shelf life and ability to drive a large number of small transactions over time -- grows as it encounters smaller audiences with more niche product specs. Using precious R&D dollars and full-time employment hours to build out these snowflakes would decimate its profitability. Hacking, on the other hand, essentially amplifies a product's users and usage without adding cost to the creator.

Which is why hacking is evolving to serve the makers. Shapeways is a 3D printing shop that lets people hack industrial production. Build your design on Google Sketch-Up, send it to Shapeways, and have it printed. Or, if you want to commercialize your design, it's as simple as posting it to the site.

Similarly, IkeaHackers.net is a website and grassroots effort to transform typical Ikea products into totally new and amazing objects for new uses. A Malaysian woman who calls herself Jules started IkeaHackers in 2006 after discovering large numbers of Ikea flat-pack hacks on the web. She says she receives no payment from Ikea and pays full price and waits in line like everybody else to buy her Ikea products. Some of the hacks are magnificent, while others fail; all of them point Ikea toward potential new markets, and let customers celebrate the brand by expressing their creativity.

According to a piece in the St. Petersburg Times, hacking is actually a great American tradition that began as far back as the 1870s, when teenagers hacked into the telephone system. As recently as the 1960s, "hacking" had something of a positive meaning; the term itself was coined by ingenious MIT academics who knew how to make computers do things that they couldn't do before. Legend has it that they adopted their name from a group of MIT model-train enthusiasts who "hacked" into train sets to make them run faster.

But by the 1970s, "hacking" began to assume a somewhat less lofty association after John Draper was arrested for manipulating the telephone system by blowing a Cap'n Crunch cereal-box whistle into a telephone receiver -- it happened to be the very same tone used to open long-distance lines. Following in his footsteps, a pair of California hackers calling themselves "Berkeley Blue" and "Oak Toebark" built a so-called "blue box" that enabled free long-distance phone calls and launched their invention as their fledgling company's first product. Their real names were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the upstart company was called Apple ... and we all know the rest of their story.

If hackers were the outliers and rogues of the 20th Century, their 21st-century peers are communal problem-solvers. Together, these innovators reveal previously unseen opportunities through their inclination to build and make. Products formerly built for the broadest possible segment are now built for a core purpose, and the community can build out and customize from there.

To help things along, monikers are developing to segment hacking into areas that more clearly define the good, the bad, and the semi-helpful. While not without controversy, the pejorative is moving towards "cracking" to define ill- or criminal-intent activities; classic hacking; and "grey hats" and "white hats" which are semi-helpful in pointing out security risks and may occasionally assist as "hacktivists," which generally has a positive connotation.

Hacking is also fast becoming a managerial mindset. In today's world, intellectual property is also an intellectual prison: Opening your platform to hacking lets you spread your investment in the future among your customers while engaging them in a deep and honest way--one that keeps them coming back for more. Stickier products and higher profit margins seem reason enough to give hacking a try. You might be amazed at what develops.

JOHN GERZEMA is the executive chairman of BrandAsset Consulting, and oversees strategy across the Young & Rubicam Group companies. He is also the co-author of Spend Shift. He can be reached at: john.gerzema-@-brandassetconsulting.com.

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