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Less than two weeks after Sony released its long-anticipated PlayStation Portable, a handheld gaming device with multimedia capabilities, the device’s most ardent fans began spreading details about their successful hacks. Among the more ingenious: Web browsing additions, instant-message chats, and TiVo-recording playbacks.

The PSP is already a strong seller in that short timeframe. Reviews of the multi-function device are almost universally positive, and with the heavy overlap between hardcore geeks and hardcore gamers, it seems a natural fit for hacker interest to run high. What’s more, the unit comes with 32MB of memory, music and movie playing capabilities and built-in WiFi access, meaning it offers plenty of tools for hackers to play with.

Sony has been mum on the hacks so far. The company didn’t respond to TechnologyReview.com’s request for comment.

However, the company’s history with product hacks suggests that it will tread this situation very carefully. In 2001, Sony forced a fan of the company’s robotic dog toy Aibo to remove code from his site that allowed the dog to do such things as dance.

That fan, known as AiboPet, was served with a lawsuit for his efforts. As a result, Aibo fans boycotted the robotic dog and Sony eventually relented in its efforts when public outcry over the crackdown grew.

The lesson learned: Sony might do well to let the hackers run their course with the device – it would likely engender an even more slavish devotion to the device.

“The hacks show there’s enthusiasm for the platform – that”s good news,” says P.J. McNealy, an analyst with American Technology Research. “If people want to use the device to chat with someone, where’s the revenue loss for Sony?”

With Aibo, Sony’s hand was forced by the public’s reaction, but in the game space, several examples exist of companies succeeding by allowing – and even encouraging –these hacks.

One particularly striking example came with Valve Software’s decision to make the code for its popular game Half-Life available to hackers who then took to the code and created Counter-Strike, which grew to become the most-played online game. Eventually, Valve Software decided to release the game – with full support — in 2002, while still allowing the players to use the older, hacked versions.

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