Thursday, December 02, 2004


Software upgrades for consumer electronics?

How would you like to buy a consumer electronics device like a DVD recorder, and know that it wouldn't be out-of-date next year? I would, and I briefly thought I saw a revolution against "planned obsolescence" when I came across an ad from Philips Electronics on MSN Hotmail touting the Nexperia chip.

The ad said the chip can "respond to new developments in technology." If some new multimedia or mobile feature or standard is developed, one can load it on the Nexperia chip and not need to swap hardware. Unlike traditional consumer/mobile electronics chips (ASICs), which are "hardwired" to perform their functions, the Nexperia is a programmable System on a Chip (SOC), which means you can load new versions of software on it much like you load new software versions on a PC. That's because the Nexperia is really a PC chip of sorts, a microprocessor that runs Linux, meaning that the functionality of a consumer device comes from the software and not the hardware, and the functionality is essentially "platform independent." Philips promises this approach offers "flexible, future-proof solutions."

As I investigated this wonder more thoroughly, I discovered increasing amounts of technical gobbledygook. It turns out the Nexperia ad is intended for engineers designing mobile and consumer devices, not for consumers themselves. (So much for targeted ads on MSN). It is not Philips consumer electronics division that is hawking Nexperia, it is the semiconductor division, who sell to other consumer electronics companies. The upgradability is merely a way to prevent Sony, Samsung or whoever, from building a box and finding it overtaken by market technical developments before they are able to ship it. In other words, it's about preventing the box manufacturers from being stuck with dated inventories. Once the consumer pays for and takes possession of the box, the manufacturer could care less how out of date it gets. Planned obsolescence for the consumer lives on. Arguably, for consumers who like to buy factory-new products that are last years model, the pickings will be slimmer in future, a second-order loss for consumers.

We aren't yet at the point of consumer upgradability for consumer devices. The manufacturers don't yet see it in their interest. But it is in the users' interest, and someone willing to break ranks with the planned obsolescence crowd will make money from this. Consumer devices are becoming PCs, and can be programmed. If manufacturers don't supply the means to allow consumers to reprogram their devices, socially conscious hackers will. Consider the marvelous case of the hackers who enabled the iPod to talk to PCs. Apple had to respond, and by shedding their parochial attitude, expanded the market enormously.

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