The Firmware of Everyday Things

(with apologies to Donald Norman, for paraphrasing his excellent book title)

As an IT person, I’m pretty used to the idea that I need to update software now and again. Sometimes, it’s to make it more secure (closing down vulnerabilities that afflict any software exposed to the outside world), fixing bugs (which affect all software, period) or adding new features and functionality (which maybe the designers of the software didn’t think of before, or which they just didn’t have time to implement). Maybe the update is the form of a patch, maybe it’s a whole new version that I will choose to buy.

As the reach of software gets more and more pervasive, it’s interesting to note the difference between what people will do in an IT world, and what they expect from the rest of the world around them.

Now, I spent a good chunk of the last weekend updating the firmware in my car, specifically the software which controls the entertainment systems, the Sat-Nav etc – in my case, it’s Audi’s excellent MMI system, but many other manufacturers are moving to some kind of multi-modal, software-based control mechanism for the myriad systems in the car.

BMW “popularised” such a system with it’s iDrive control technology, which seemingly took several revisions to be usable by any car reviewer, even though it made perfect sense to me.

Getting software upgrades for these things is far from easy: arguably, nor should it be. What business do ordinary consumers have in getting hold of low-cost or free updates, which they apply themselves, to make their ownership experience better?

As it happens, I heard about a series of updates which would make the navigation system built in to my car quite a bit better – and on asking, my dealer was more than happy to supply the software update for me and install it, for only £100+VAT to cover the labour involved.

I managed to find far more than I ever dreamt I needed to know, through various online forums – particularly – that opened up a whole series of secret key-press combinations to bring up hidden menus, the part numbers of the CDs I’d need to order from the dealer (at about £1.50 each), and the procedures to upgrade the whole thing myself.

Here’s an example of just one such hidden menu…

So many other devices which previously would have been considered an appliance, now have the capability to be upgraded if only the suppliers embrace the idea and maybe even make it easy. Examples abound – the Philips Pronto universal remote control has spawned a huge user community to modifying the way it works, precisely because Philips made the software available to do so easily, and regularly updates the device’s capability based on user feedback.

I upgrade my mobile phone with beta software regularly, my Zune music player got a whole new look and feel courtesy of some free software and firmware upgrades. There are secret menus on my TV that show the software version, the satellite receiver downloads firmware updates automatically (even though sometimes it manages to crash when it tries to install them). Even the DVD drive that I fitted to my home PC has a little bit of software that checks online for updates to its firmware, and the PC into which I fitted it was having all sorts of trouble with its memory until I applied a BIOS update from the manufacturer.

Much of this stuff is very much beyond the ken of the man on the Clapham Omnibus, but as IT hardware awareness spreads out to the general public in time, maybe it’s not going to be too far in the future when people routinely expect improvements to come to any piece of electronic equipment through periodic updates.

Of course, it can all go horribly wrong – twice on Saturday, I got myself into a situation with the car where none of the MMI system worked, meaning I had no radio, no navigation, no GUI to any of the other systems like parking sensors or suspension settings etc… and it took a good deal of fuse-pulling and rebooting to get it all working again.

Maybe it’s better to just rely on someone to do it all for you …

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