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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.

Comments 10
  1. If I “go a little further”, it’s only because of very sad experience with “free” hardware, such as the “Neo Freerunner” which, frankly, would have had to be ten times as good as it was to qualify as “a piece of crap”. It was unusable, and experience doesn’t provide a lot of comforting support for the idea that a washing machine whose ROM I could reflash is something I want in the slightest. The actual computers give me enough problems.As for tailoring it to my clothing, I have this theory about laundry: everything goes in, warm water, cold rinse, regular cycle. Everything then goes in the drier for 45 minutes, regular cycle. Whatever doesn’t survive gets thrown away.It’s Darwinian. Works fine for me.

  2. (And yes, I do recommend that all “free software advocates” throw away their washers and do their clothes entirely by hand unless and until a completely free washer is released. As I’ve just been informed on, “there are only two kinds of non-Free Software: those with known backdoors, and those about which we don’t know”.(With worries like that, who know what’s possible? Your washing machine could be reporting things back to the CIA for all you know, the same way that Richard Stallman claimed Facebook “probably” is…)

  3. I’m not surprised, to be honest, about the level of craziness of certain individual. Although I have most of my sarcasm reserved for technical craziness…On the other hand, I guess the next question is “what are they actually afraid of?” Google as *much* more information about me than I would like them to have. So many bloody websites’ registrations send the passwords back in clear text.

  4. Access to firmware is important to be able to perform a security audit and to repair things after the company has discontinued support (both as a technician who can only buy components without firmware and as an owner of a device with a newly discovered security vulnerability for which the company provides no patches because warranty has expired).But consider the case when a company sells two versions of a product: an “enterprise” and a “personal” version, which have the exact same hardware, with the only difference between the two are features that are enabled only in the “enterprise” version. If the cheap version wasn’t physically neutered by the manufacturer (lasers, blowing fuses, etc.), it can be “upgraded” to the full-featured version by flashing its firmware. The company will understandably try to make it hard to do, and will send the police and lawyers after you if it thinks you’re buying the cheap version, modifying it and reselling it as the expensive one.Even if they only want to reserve the option of doing something like this in the future, they won’t want to give you the firmware. BTW, if someone thinks it’s immoral to sell products with a limited firmware when the full one already exists, I disagree.Also, the source code of the firmware makes it easier to spot intellectual property they’ve stolen from competitors (or from GPL code), and they don’t want that. But let’s not assume it’s the only reason.

  5. But, Zeev, you didn’t pay for the “expensive version” and the ease with which one can be turned into the other is immaterial. If you happen to discover that your Ford car key happens to work in a Lamborghini, are you entitled to just take it?

  6. I think the argument regarding firmware-forced limitations is one that could go on separately for quite a while. It’s like when FSF called to the compact digital cameras for not providing RAW images but just compressed one… “it’s not that simple”.Hardware in general might not support the extended features as intended, and the original firmware might thus turn off some thing that it _could_ do because the original manufacturer wanted to have something that was ready and solid to do. And those features might not be sustained by the hardware without incurring extra risks.An example can be most of the consumer/home routers that you find around; quite a few lacks functions that it would be trivial to add to them, and OpenWRT does a good job at adding to those. But not _all_ of them can do _all_ the functions, because of lack of memory or flash space.And yes, you can notice here that OpenWRT falls in squarely on my metaphor above regarding cheap, solid washing machines with an hackable firmware. It was intended.

  7. But if you copy someones Lamborghini key, and it fits into your Ford, turning it into a Lamborghini … silly analogy. 🙂

  8. Do you know what? I’d _love_ a washing machine with cron and ssmtp. (and an ironing feature, while we’re dreaming)

  9. We’re missing something in this debate.We the people make the law. If we want to stop this nonsense with firmware on washing machines — and you outline very sound economic and environmental reasons to do so — lobby your government representative / parliamentarian / senator and get a law passed to force manufacturers to do it.

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