We Need Software Updates Forever

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 Sony PlayStation 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.”

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