Right to Repair: Do Not Forget Firmware

Early July 2021, US president Joe Biden signed an executive order strengthening the right to repair in America. It is all the rage in the YouTuber space. Over here in Europe, the European Parliament is also working on encouraging reuse and repair to save on resources (Ecodesign Requirements, Grant EU Consumers Right to Repair, Europe Reduce Waste by Guaranteeing Right to Repair). However, I do not think the movement is as strong as in the US, based on my perception of the media coverage. I had to actively search for information rather than having it thrown at me by media outlets, old-school and modern alike.

Disclaimer: This might just be my way of looking for and consuming information. I strongly prefer non-German modern tech media (read YouTube creators) because I am yet to find one that produces at the same level of production quality as someone like Linus Media Group, as one example. I watch German news, though, so I am not entirely ignoring my own country 😉

Now, the topic of this post is not where I get my information or how far the current state of legislation has come everywhere in the world.

I know that "Right to Repair" goes way beyond smartphones and computers. My focus is on consumer technology because that is where my interests are.

I want to talk about the software that runs on the hardware since it is just as important to a product’s lifetime. Washing machines and similar household appliances are becoming "smarter and smarter" with every new generation, so it is no longer just phones and tablets. Together with mobile computers, the latter two categories are likely what everybody interested in tech immediately thinks about when hearing "Right to Repair".

(Does anybody remember the times when you could easily replace a smartphone‘s battery?)

Whereas computers usually receive software updates for a long time by Apple and Microsoft (or Linux if that is your operating system of choice), mobile devices are different. I hate to say it, but so far, this primarily applies to Android-based devices.

But why is software so essential? I mean, it is not the software that ends up in landfills. I have even stated in the past that I do not particularly yearn for all those shiny new features Apple and Google add to Android and iOS because my use-case is very simple. I do not require years of new software features I do not use – and I say that as a technology enthusiast and software developer. So why, dude? Why is software support equally crucial as the right and the capability to repair devices?

The answer boils down to a single word: Security.

Let me use an example that you might not have thought about: Western Digital’s My Book Live suite of products. A severe vulnerability has recently surfaced that allowed attackers to wipe the device. Yes, wipe it. Clear of all data. All gone. As in, everything deleted.

The last update these Internet-connected appliances received was in 2015. Although Western Digital will offer data recovery services for affected customers (👍), the NAS devices will not receive an update to fix the issue. For you, as a customer, this means you either live with the risk of losing all your data or throw it away and go out to buy a new one. But why would you, if the hardware is still functioning? Yes, even the most recent of those affected models is at least six years old. But if it ain’t broke, at least physically, why "fix" it?

If you want more details, I encourage you to watch the respective section of the Security Now podcast (direct link, watch until one hour and five minutes (about 18 minutes))

The same fate might befall other "smart" appliances like the washing machines et al. mentioned earlier. That is not something you simply replace because of an unpatched software vulnerability. I might swap my phone or tablet on a whim, but household appliances are usually supposed to last a decade or more. I would not want my fridge to be abused for crypto mining for ten long years because the manufacturer is not interested in or capable of updating the firmware regularly. Now, I admit that I have not yet heard of anything affecting such appliances. I guess they are not yet commonplace enough. But that does not mean it will not happen. I am confident it will come at some point. And for the same reason, enthusiasts play Doom on a printer screen: because they can, and maybe because of some financial gain that can come of it.

(Notice a theme here?)

How many years does your Android device receive a new patch or major version? I hope Samsung is true to its word and truly delivers four years of updates. Google, on the other hand, only offers three years for their Pixel devices.

Pixel phones get security updates for at least 3 years from when the device first became available on the Google Store in the US.

A rather mediocre offering, if you ask me, given the prices of Pixel phones. Still better than many others in the industry, though.

But even Samsung’s four years pale in comparison to Apple’s commitment to their mobile products. As far as I understand, Apple makes no blanket statement about how long they support their devices in general. Apple provides support documents on the latest version of iOS, though. According to that document, version 14.7 still supports the iPhone 6s, a device released in September of 2015, six (!) years ago. It will even receive iOS 15.

That is way longer than every other smartphone maker out there, not to mention all the Android tablets that get neglected much sooner than the phones of the same manufacturer. Only with such extended software support does it makes sense for a consumer to repair the device, especially the battery. I am still using my iPad Mini 4, also a 2015 device. Software support is why I buy Apple devices. And this should be mandated in the future, in addition to the current Right to Repair regulations.

Of course, this only makes sense for consumers who do not fall victim to the yearly update cycles. Although those devices end up in the hands of more price-conscious 2nd-hand buyers, it is still a waste, all encouraged by capitalism. This is a little side-rant about why we need a new phone, tablet, or computer hardware release every year. Are we so desperate for that little bit of more performance or tiny improvement after just one year of use? Has the iPhone 11 suddenly turned sour and slow and terrible because its successor was revealed? What good did all the Intel CPU releases over the past years do? Some were called a waste of sand. Spend a bit more time and come out with a true leap in improvement?

(Capitalism and the power of shareholders)

I understand the enthusiasm for new technology. I totally get it. I do not get spending up to a thousand units of money every year to replace something perfectly fine with something slightly faster that may also look different. Not even as a relatively affluent person. That is waste right there. Now, please do not understand this as a call for regulation. It is more about education and self-control.

Coming back to the topic of software updates, I think that this aspect must not be overlooked. What good does it do to fix the hardware aspect, regardless of type, when it is still unusable because of shortcomings in the software? Maybe it is not updated to the latest networking standards or supports an improved encryption algorithm for secure network communication. As a result, you cannot use it as the manufacturer once advertised it. Maybe the software that runs on it has a severe security vulnerability that integrates your device into a botnet, allows attackers to install ransomware, or something else terrible, like deleting all your data. Software updates that at least fix security issues and keep the hardware from being unusable are essential to longer lifespans.

"Right to Repair" is a significant first step. A guarantee of software updates for a reasonable amount of time should also be a goal. Maybe hardware manufacturers learn that by themselves through sheer competition. Mentioning Samsung again, possibly its announcement was firing the starting gun, and others follow suit. One can only hope. It made me buy a Samsung tablet for a change.

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