We Need Software Updates Forever

Manufacturers should maintain their software and firmware indefinitely

3 min read

A hand holding an electronic device with an updating icon over it.  Stuart Bradford

I recently did some Marie Kondo–inspired housecleaning: Anything that didn't bring me joy got binned. In the process, I unearthed some old gadgets that made me smile. One was my venerable Nokia N95, a proto-smartphone, the first to sport GPS. Another was a craptastic Android tablet—a relic of an era when each year I would purchase the best tablet I could for less than $100 (Australian!), just to see how much you could get for that little. And there was my beloved SonyPlayStation Portable. While I rarely used it, I loved what the PSP represented: a high-powered handheld device, another forerunner of today's smartphone, though one designed for gaming rather than talking.

These nifty antiques shared a common problem: Although each booted up successfully, none of them really work anymore. In 2014, Nokia sold off its smartphone division to Microsoft in a fire sale; then Microsoft spiked the whole effort. These moves make my N95 an orphan product from a defunct division of a massive company. Without new firmware, it's essentially useless. My craptastic tablet and PSP similarly need a software refresh. Yet neither of them can log into or even locate the appropriate update servers.

You might think that a 15-year-old gaming console wouldn't even be operating, but Sony's build quality is such that, with the exception of a very tired lithium-Ion battery, the unit is in perfect condition. It runs but can't connect to modern Wi-Fi without an update, which it can't access without an update to its firmware (a classic catch-22). I've wasted a few hours trying to work out how to get new firmware on it (and on the tablet), without success. Two perfectly good pieces of electronic gear have become useless, simply for want of software updates.

Device makers are apt to drop support for old gadgets faster than the gadgets themselves wear out.

Consumers have relied on the good graces of device makers to keep our gadget firmware and software secure and up-to-date. Doing so costs the manufacturer some of its profits. As a result, many of them are apt to drop support for old gadgets faster than the gadgets themselves wear out. This corporate stinginess consigns far too many of our devices to the trash heap before they have exhausted their usability. That's bad for consumers and bad for the planet. It needs to stop.

We have seen a global right-to-repair movement emerge from maker communities and start to influence public policy around such things as the availability of spare parts. I'd argue that there should be a parallel right-to-maintain movement. We should mandate that device manufacturers set aside a portion of the purchase price of a gadget to support ongoing software maintenance, forcing them to budget for a future they'd rather ignore. Or maybe they aren't ignoring the future so much as trying to manage it by speeding up product obsolescence, because it typically sparks another purchase.

Does this mean Sony and others should still be supporting products nearly two decades old, like my PSP? If that keeps them out of the landfill, I'd say yes: The benefits easily outweigh the costs. The devilish details come in decisions about who should bear those costs. But even if they fell wholly on the purchaser, consumers would, I suspect, be willing to pay a few dollars more for a gadget if that meant reliable access to software for it—indefinitely. Yes, we all want shiny new toys—and we'll have plenty of them—but we shouldn't build that future atop the prematurely discarded remains of our electronic past.

This article appears in the October 2021 print issue as "Bricked by Age."

The Conversation (7)
Chad Fraleigh
Chad Fraleigh25 Sep, 2021

While maintaining it forever seems a little unrealistic, I think they should have a minimum support period, provide free firmware downloads and product documentation indefinitely (even if old/unsupported), and be required to have a minimum EoL date provided as part of the [pre-purchase] product information. That way consumers know exactly how long a device can remain usable (and secure) before they buy it. Too often, unless you're someone who only buys the expensive, latest products, a device may already be unsupported (or close to it) by the time it's bought from a retail store. If people knew it was already obsolete/insecure with no official means to ever upgrade it, they might be less likely to buy it (and force the manufactures to do better or lose profits).I also think manufactures should forfeit their copyrights [to the minimum level necessary to maintain a device at its sold functionality] if they choose to no longer maintain it, themselves. At a minimum, preventing them from stopping others from publicly distributing/decompiling the original content and/or directly derived software (i.e. no clean room isolation requirement). Ideally, they should be required to publicly release the original source code after some reasonable period of non-support (to allow them to change their mind and resume support, and counter any excuses that doing such would hurt their new product sales).

Daniel Schneider
Daniel Schneider25 Sep, 2021

There is no need to charge the original purchaser at time of purchase. The company could charge when the update is needed by the consumer. Also, it would be best if subscription programs did not completely expire at the end of a subscription. This creates issues if there are network and/or hacking issues when a subscription is due, if the company has gone out of business, or if there are issues with the next version of the product at the time of renewal. Instead the software company could simply withhold support and on-line services if one did not maintain the subscription.

Payam Minoofar
Payam Minoofar23 Sep, 2021

This is an extremely important and exceptionally timely demand. Car manufacturers are required to sign contract to ensure supply of parts for 10 years after they exit the US market, possibly longer after exiting the EU. Aviation and avionics manufacturers are required to support their hardware as long as they are airborne, which is why a giant Rockwell-Collins warehouse in Iowa maintains and refurbishes avionics dating back to the 50s. Though these are standards for decidedly more critical products, there is no reason why consumer electronics cannot be held to some standard to prevent consumers from being at the mercy of manufacturers. Certainly, PCs need a standard for maintenance given how critical they are to people's lives. Smart thermostats could have a profound impact on consumers' lives, too. Consumers should be assured of a minimum standard of support because they rely more and more on "smart" devices.

Many publishers of linux offer LTS (long term support) versions. LTS is not a controversial proposal.