Alex Kuklinski is helping people across the world turn their color screen e-readers into full-blown tablet computers.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha freshman has grown into a YouTube sensation over the past week after one of his instructional videos on “rooting” — a form of hacking — a Nook Color e-reader from Barnes & Noble was featured in a story by National Public Radio.
In the 14-minute video, Kuklinski, or “huskermania” as he's known on YouTube, talks his audience through the process of downloading software to a memory card and uploading the software to a $250 Nook Color, and then showing how to activate a full version of Google's Android operating system that the Nook Color typically runs in a stripped-down version.
When the process is complete, the Nook Color becomes the equivalent of a Samsung Galaxy tablet, which retails at $500.
After the device is rooted, users can download popular applications, or apps, such as games, useful utility programs, or, if they wish, even Amazon's Kindle app, a competitor to the Barnes & Noble product.
Rooting, hacking or modifying the Nook Color or any other device, such as a gaming system or a smart phone, automatically voids the product's warranty. But the activities are becoming more popular in the mainstream. There are countless websites and YouTube pages dedicated to teaching regular folks how to unlock or “jailbreak” smart phones, “mod” their gaming systems and get the most out of their 21st century devices.
Since the NPR piece, which was the outlet's most e-mailed story on its website, views of Kuklinski's Nook Color rooting video have reached more than 90,000. Even if a fraction of those viewers have actually taken his directions and rooted their e-readers, that's still a significant number. And those views are coming from all over the globe, in places such as Singapore, Sweden, Australia and the Philippines.
Barnes & Noble did not respond to a request seeking comment for this article.
Asked what he thinks an official from Barnes & Noble would say about him rooting the company's e-reader, Kuklinski said he thinks that the Nook Color has actually become more popular because it can be rooted.
“I think Barnes & Noble understands that a lot of people are buying the Nook Color for that reason,” said Kuklinski, who is majoring in IT innovation, a hybrid of computer science and entrepreneurship. “They could be marketing this as a tablet. It's a pretty high quality device.”
The dark-haired, bespectacled 18-year-old even said he'd rather tote his rooted Nook Color around UNO's campus than the bigger, more expensive Microsoft Xoom tablet that he owns.
“It weighs a lot less, and it's a lot smaller,” he said. “The Nook Color you can fit in the palm of your hand.”
Last year, federal regulators exempted “jailbreaking” of Apple's popular iPhone from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Apple Inc. and Steve Jobs, the company's chief executive, had deemed the hacking unlawful because it allowed the device to run applications the company did not approve.
Because of that decision, Kuklinski and others don't have to break the law to hack, jailbreak or root their digital devices.
Kuklinski said it's not accurate to call him a “hacker” because he's not writing the specialized software that converts the Nook Color into a tablet. He said he's just making the work of hackers more available.
“I'll try to take complicated stuff that I might find easy and make it so that my grandma can do it,” Kuklinski said. “I need to take every little step and make sure it's in there.”
Kuklinski is a graduate of Papillion-La Vista South High School. He's been making YouTube videos for the past four years, since he was a freshman in high school, starting with choppy, low-quality clips of roller coasters at various theme parks.
Much as he was consumed by theme parks earlier, Kuklinski now is obsessed with creating technology-based projects on his devices, narrating and filming the projects, then uploading them to YouTube.
Since he started his YouTube page, Kuklinski has made 190 videos. Most of them are basic “how to” videos on installing software or applications, analysis of various devices, or other nifty tricks like installing an application to make phone calls from an iPod Touch.
For Kuklinski, the more hits he gets, the better. Because his video page is rigged with online advertising from Google, which owns YouTube, the more views, or impressions, and clicks he gets, the more money he makes.
Kuklinski declined to give a specific dollar amount of how much he makes, but he said it's enough to pay for all of the gadgets he features in his videos and to pay for some of his college expenses.
With each video taking up to six hours to film, produce and upload, Kuklinski's YouTube page is definitely a job.
“It's a good part of my day,” said Kuklinski, who has to manage comments, respond to questions from his 19,000 subscribers and maintain a steady stream of new content. “I have a whole list of video ideas in my head. Once you get going with this stuff, people expect you to do more of what they want.”
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