Free Software and Washing Machines

I think this metaphor, extracted from a discussion between Lefty, me and Carlo Piana, could really make it clear what my status is with respect to Free Software:

Have you got a washing machine? I guess you do; I’ll venture to say it’s a modern washing machine, let’s say.. from around 2005 or later. Good. Do you have the sources of the firmware of the dishwasher? I guess not, uh?

But I know there are people working on that, will give us a Free Software washing machine.

Sure, and once they’ll advertise washing machines with Free Software in them, hackable Free Software, by the way, I’ll gladly choose one as replacement when needed. Until then, I think I can still wash my clothes in the current, proprietary washing machine. It washes them just as fine, you know.

Now, Lefty goes a bit further questioning the usefulness of having free software on devices such as this one; on the other hand, I think it would still be a positive signal, as there are a few reason why free (hackable) firmware in those situations might be good for the user; on the other hand, it’s more than likely that it’ll hurt the profit margins of the vendors, so it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

For instance (this happened to me before, thus why I know about the situation is realistic), if you were to damage the logic board of your washing machine, it’s no longer just a matter of procuring yourself with the replacement component, like you did with older machinery. Even though there’ll be a number of shops to sell replacement components that are either compatible or even the original ones that left the manufacturer’s stock, they are shipped without firmware in them. So you need the firmware to make use of them.

Not only the firmware is proprietary, so getting a hold of it is illegal, but the firmware loaders themselves don’t store a copy of it any longer! They now switched to a set of flasher and 3G phone that downloads the firmware on-the-spot for a given model, and flash it right away on the board. You won’t have a copy of it, as it is.

With a Free Software (and hackable) firmware in the washing machine, instead, you’ll have the chance to simply take care of the flashing yourself if you ever had to replace the logic board, wouldn’t it be nice? And ecological as well since you wouldn’t replace the whole machine if the warranty ran out (replacement of logic board requires a technician call; it means that you can easily surpass the price of a new washing machine just by asking for the replacement). But it’s not just that; you could configure special washing routines, fine-tuned for the kind of clothes you wash, and the detergent you use.. or you could set it to only work during certain moments of the day.. all in all you’d have a terrific amount of choice in front of you!

But this utopia; manufacturers aren’t likely to give you access to your washing machine’s firmware; they have a business model going on with those replacement parts; they ask for more of your money to provide you with feature on your washing machines, even though these only usually come with sturdier, more capable (in form of its own hardware that is) machines that you might not have need for. Unless, of course, at some point a single manufacturer can find a way to produce low-cost decent-quality washing machines, that can give it more profit by selling the units than by struggling with replacement parts and technicians; at that point, a free, hackable firmware might make sense: take over the market by small, durable, tweakable yet affordable washing machines… and after that, the rest of the industry will have to follow suit as a “paradigm shift” started.

Who knows, it might happen. But until then, do you really think you should preach that Free Software users wash their clothes by hand? Or attack users and developers of proprietary washing machines “enemies of Free Software”? How’s this different from any other gadget? TV sets, dishwashers, phones (not just cellphones, your DECT has firmware as well, you know), you name it. And how are these different from specific software applications, or appliances if you prefer? My answer is “They aren’t”.

As long as I can accept the limitations I’m given, as long as it does not coerce me into something I don’t want to do, I’m happy to use the best tool, whatever that tool is, to complete a task. I have trust that such a tool is going to be, if not now in the future, Free Software. Not because I take that as the only important measurement, but because I know that the model works, and I have good reasons to prefer working with Free tools than not.