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That ownership thing again

12 September 2017

Over the years I have written several columns discussing the issue of whether you really own the stuff you buy -- at least the hi-tech stuff.

Unfortunately, it's time to write one of those columns again.

To recap however, it seems that increasingly that when you buy a piece of hi-tech equipment, the manufacturer treats you as if you were just "borrowing" that device. If you buy a hammer, a saw or a piece of timber, you can do whatever the hell you want with those things. You can set fire to the hammer, bend the saw in half to the point that it breaks and you can eat the wood if you feel so inclined.

In essence, once you've paid your money, the product is yours -- to do with as you please.

Not so much of our new technology-based products.

Of course I have to make mention of drones here (just for a moment) but the thrust of today's column isn't about drones -- never the less, if you buy a DJI drone then it is DJI, not you, who decides where you are allowed to fly today. Try to take-off at a location that DJI has decided is in a no-go area and your expensive flying camera becomes "just a camera".

But now on to other things...

I was reading this BBC story this morning because, as long-time readers will recall, many, many years ago I mooted the concept of allowing mobile phones to operate on a peer-to-peer basis so as to provide service during major infrastructure outages.

When I first saw this story I thought maybe it was an implementation of this idea -- perhaps providing VOIP over WiFi. It would have been extremely interesting to see how this actually worked during hurricane Irma. Sadly, the Zello app still requires either a mobile data or Wifi service to work... why?

Following this disappointment, I continued reading down the page until I came across an even more interesting bit of news.

Apparently, Tesla "unlocked" the extra capacity of batteries in its Model S and X 60/60D vehicles -- providing they were in Florida at the time of the hurricane.

The Teslas are like so much electronic test gear and software that you buy today insomuch as they come "fully decked out" but with some of the functionality or features disabled until you pay extra money.

Over the years I've had a heap of oscilloscopes, logic analysers and other gear which is one of a "family" of devices. The cheapest one might be (say) a 50MHz oscilloscope and cost $300. The top-end might be a 120MHz unit and cost $500. The reality is that they are *exactly* the same bit of hardware and the only difference is that the software on the cheap unit artificially limits it to a 50MHz bandwidth. To upgrade from the 50 to the 120 requires only the payment of money and the entering of an "upgrade" key to change the behaviour of the software.

Now it might sound like a bit of a rort that one customer pays $200 more than another, even though they're buying exactly the same system and that the cheap one has been deliberately ankle-tapped -- but it's business.

The real problem occurs when someone decides to hack one of these things and publish the details of that hack to the Net -- so that everyone can get a free $200 upgrade.

At that stage, threats of legal action and (in the USA) the DMCA usually start being invoked in an attempt to prevent this valuable information being freely disseminated.

But surely, since you have purchased both the hardware and the firmware, you can do whatever the hell you want with your expensive tech product -- can't you? Even after the hack, your device is still the same device and the same firmware remains installed, it's just that bits which were previously inactive are now active (or v/v). You've stolen nothing -- have you?

Also, what happens when someone starts hacking the Teslas?

Right now there's not really a problem because there are so few of the damned things, they're pretty expensive and most are still under warranty. However, I expect that once warranties expire and the risk of bricking your ride reduces somewhat, we'll see Tesla hacks online so that people can effectively upgrade their own car to one with greater range.

And would this really be anything different to when you stuck twin-carbs and a lumpy cam on that old 105E Anglia back when you were 17 years old?

Here in NZ, I wonder if "hacking" your car will be considered the equivalent of lowering it or fitting a boy-racer exhaust? Will you need to get a special certification in the event that you tinker with the brains of your EV so as to unlock expensive optional features for free? Will the WOF inspector be checking the actual configuration of the vehicle versus the configuration on the VIN?

Ah... first-world problems eh?

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