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Clone killing software

23 September 2014

What would happen if your PC automatically downloaded (as part of its automatic updates) a driver that killed several of your peripherals stone dead.

No doubt you'd be pretty annoyed and expect some recompense for the damage.

Well that's exactly what's happened in the case of some devices which rely on a special component known as a USB to UART converter -- a tiny chip that is often used as part of the USB interface found in some peripherals. The most popular of these devices are set of chips developed and made by Future Technology Devices International, chips that have earned them a pretty penny over the years.

Naturally, such success has attracted imitators and even those who would simply copy outright, these very useful bits of silicon. Just as Rolex watches, Gucci bags and masses of other products have been "cloned" or counterfeited by low-budget manufacturers in countries with lax copyright enforcement like China, so too have FTDI's USB chips

To date, FTDI has simply been annoyed but accepting of the infringements of its intellectual property rights but, in a recent automated Windows Update operation, that all changed.

In order for these chips to work when connected to a computer, that computer must load and execute some driver code. The FTDI driver code has become ubiquitous and most of the cloned chips worked perfectly well with it.

However, it seems that FTDI have placed a soft-bomb in their latest driver that identifies any unauthorised pretender and actually renders it useless by some clever bit twiddling.

Not only will the non-FTDI versions of these chips no longer work on any machine running the updated drivers -- it will no longer work, even if you switch back to the older drivers.

Right now a fair few readers are probably thinking.. "well that'll teach people for buying and using counterfeit chips".. which would be fair enough, except for the fact that most of the time, the victims of this software bomb haven't wittingly purchased a knock-off chip, they've just purchased a product which, unknown to them, has that chip built into it.

There are some who believe that FTDI have operated in an acceptable fashion in effectively disabling devices that attempt to use their drivers to support counterfeit parts and it's easy to have some sympathy for their situation. However, the real mistake they have made is to reset the PID in those fake devices to zero, without any notification and without advising the user why their fancy XYZGizmo device no longer works when plugged into the same computer it worked perfectly with just yesterday.

A simple message such as "The device you are using is now unsupported by FTDI drivers, please contact your supplier for updated drivers" would have been a *far* better approach to take and would not have resulted in customers scratching their heads.

There's no point in FTDI punishing the end-user of these devices by effectively bricking them simply because the manufacturer opted to cut corners by using counterfeit silicon or relying on drivers they did not write themselves. Such a move only damages FTDI's reputation as a good corporate citizen and may, in the longer term, create significant fiscal harm. Already a number of players in the market have suggested that they will opt not to use FTDI components in future as a result of this latest situation.

So, if you suddenly find that one of your USB devices has spat the dummy and refuses to work -- perhaps you've also become a victim of this covert software-bombing by an unhappy manufacturer seeking to kill-off anything which uses its drivers without permission.

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