Handset maker Nokia confirmed Wednesday that hackers had managed to crack anticopying protections in games designed for its new N-Gage, a gadget that combines a cell phone with a Game Boy-like handheld gaming console.
The company also said it's cooperating with law enforcement authorities and broadband providers to stop illegal online trading of the games, which normally sell for between $35 and $40. Spokesman Stephen Knuff said such trading has been taking place for an undetermined amount of time via Web sites and cell phone virtual communities.
"Nokia will cooperate with ISPs and the relevant authorities to pursue all actions and remedies available to stop this," Knuff said. "We take these types of intellectual property offenses very seriously."
The crackdown comes after someone managed to disable the copyright protection Nokia developed for the games, which are stored on a small card that fits into the N-Gage. Once the security is disabled, the games can be played on any cell phone that, like the N-Gage, uses the Symbian operating system. Symbian is an overwhelming favorite among handset makers that develop next-generation cell phones.
At first, news of the cracking was only a rumor posted on Web sites. But Knuff said Nokia's own investigation concluded that "some of the copyright protection mechanisms of some game titles have been disabled and the games made available for downloads." He said Nokia is "working continuously" to strengthen the games' security.
Nokia's own N-Gage Arena and other virtual cell phone communities were crackling Wednesday with hints on where to find games to download. Nokia said it followed one visitor's hint about there being "at least one thread where a link to (a pirated game) was given" and that the link had been deleted. A cursory tour of several different sites and virtual forums by CNET News.com failed to turn up any actual links to software.
Nokia has already warned N-Gage Arena users that there would be "consequences" for anyone posting links to pirated software.
The acts of piracy mean an abrupt end to the tight control Nokia thought it had over its most important new product. Debuting in October, the N-Gage is Nokia's initial foray into a market dominated by Nintendo, which has sold more than 140 million units of its Game Boy player since the line was introduced in 1989. Nokia chose how N-Gage games and devices were distributed, and reviewed thousands of titles before choosing the initial eight now on sale at some retail outlets and on a handful of Web sites.
Cracking adds to the imposing list of challenges Nokia faces in popularizing the N-Gage, which has been criticized as having an awkward design, a too-high price tag and not enough applications to go with it. "There are so many strikes against this thing," said Billy Pidgeon, an analyst for research firm the Zelos Group. "Some people have wondered who would want to hack these games--most of them just aren't that good."
Pidgeon said the main liability of the hacking will be a sapping of support from game publishers. "It's going to be more difficult for them to get publishers to entrust their best properties for publishing on the N-Gage if they can be easily cracked," he said, adding that game selection for the device has been underwhelming so far. "There needs to be some sort of killer app, which we haven't seen yet."
Hacking is an almost inevitable by-product of using a widely distributed platform such as Symbian, Pidgeon said, as opposed to the restricted formats used by dedicated game devices such as Nintendo's Game Boy Advance.
"Certain types of protocols and OSes are just more vulnerable," Pidgeon said. "This is not only a problem for Nokia and N-Gage, it's a problem for all wireless devices."
Cell phone skullduggery also disrupted Microsoft's plans for making games or business applications available for advanced cell phones that use its operating systems. Earlier this year, developers frustrated by Microsoft's lack of response to their concerns unlocked the security technology that prevented Microsoft-operated phones from downloading foreign software. Microsoft ultimately