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Open source Q&A: The developers of Rockbox, open source firmware for MP3 players

We speak to the people behind the open source Rockbox project

Rockbox is an open source project replacement for the firmware shipped on MP3 players and portable media players. For more information on Rockbox, read Techworld Australia's feature -- Rockbox developer interview: Open source firmware for MP3 players -- or our lengthy Q&A with Rockbox's Björn Stenberg.

Rockbox has survived for over a decade and built a strong and vibrant developer community around itself. In this interview some of the participants in the project explain how they got involved and how Rockbox has managed to last the distance.

Why did you get involved in Rockbox?

Linus Nielsen Feltzing, Sweden: I and Björn Stenberg worked for the same client, and Björn showed me his Archos Player. When he started hacking on it, I just couldn't resist. This is the type of hacking that I enjoy the most. I bought one too and joined the effort.

Jonathan Gordon, Australia: A lot of really good timing mostly. I had just bought a second-hand iriver h300, finished first year of my bachelor in software engineering, and LinusN [Linus Nielsen Feltzing] had a working bootloader and needed guinea pigs all within a very short time. Back then there were a lot of areas which were opening up (h300 was the first colour target, it was shortly after h100) so the software codec playback engine was new, targets getting more varied (iPods came along with a completely different button layout to iriver and Archos media players). So there were plenty of places for a newbie code monkey to hack and get addicted (no question I'm addicted).

In addition, the community is a big part of the reason for staying involved.

Daniel Stenberg, Sweden: For the fun of it! Both my brother Björn and our friend Linus purchased the Archos Jukebox player back in 2001. Having a portable hard drive-based player was awesome but man its software had may quirks...

So, quite early we set out to attempt to write our own. How hard could it be? I didn't have a music player myself yet but I thought of it as a fun idea and project so I participated with pleasure for several months before I got myself my first target.

All three of us have been working our whole lives with embedded systems and we believed we would be able to actually pull it through... Not to mention that all of us had been involved and participated in various open source projects already before. We knew what it could do and we knew about the joys of world-wide collaboration.

We did, and we attracted many more people from all over who joined up with us and very soon we were a large team of hackers who brought the project forwards. Since then it's just been going on with a non-stoppable pace.

We produce a software package that way surpasses what any manufacturer puts on their devices.

Frank Gevaerts, Belgium: I've been a professional programmer for more than 10 years now. I've worked on a reasonably wide variety of things, mostly in C and Java. I've worked on server applications and 16-bit embedded systems, and lots of stuff in between.

In early 2008 I wanted a new audio player. I had seen the Rockbox website a few years before that, so I decided to get something compatible — a Sansa c250. Back then Rockbox didn't have USB support yet, so you had to reboot to the original firmware each time you wanted to copy files. This particular original firmware rebuilds its database on each boot, which takes a few minutes and quickly becomes annoying.

Since I had some USB experience (I've worked on software that tests USB devices for protocol specification compliance), the quickest way to get rid of this annoyance seemed to be to implement USB support myself. After a few accepted patches I was offered commit access in February 2008.

I suspect most Rockbox developers have had similar experiences. We're very much a classic 'scratch your own itch' project — i.e. people get involved to fix issues they personally care about.

Mohamed Tarek, Egypt: I wanted to participate in an open-source project that was:

• Preferably embedded software or software that ran on low-resource systems.

• Useful to me as a user.

Not very specific criteria, but it just happened that I had just recently bought a Sansa e250 and found out about Rockbox a few hours thereafter.

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