The Fix Is Out
August 8, 2016 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Manufacturers have made it increasingly difficult for individuals or independent repair people to fix electronics. A growing movement is fighting back. -- The Fight for the "Right to Repair"
posted by Room 641-A (49 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
"Back in my day we would fix things when they broke!"
"Back in your day that was legal."
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:43 AM on August 8, 2016 [29 favorites]

Relevant: EFF recently filed a lawsuit on DMCA 1201, the law that makes bypassing DRM illegal.

DIsclosure: I work at EFF.
posted by roll truck roll at 8:43 AM on August 8, 2016 [37 favorites]

Cory Doctorow had an extensive presentation on Defcon 23 about 1201.

the effects of 1201 are batshitinsane, it needs to go.
posted by DreamerFi at 8:53 AM on August 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

I got my first laptop in 2003, and I remember opening it up to fiddle with various internals. It has gotten more difficult with each successive one. If I wanted to access the fan of my prior laptop--an IdeaPad--I needed to remove screws from the back, then gently pry up and disconnect the keyboard, then turn over, remove more screws from the back, then screws from the front, then disconnect more components, then remove the CD drive, and so on until the fan was finally exposed. It was freakin' ridiculous and the #1 reason I bought a ThinkPad was because it was so much easier to access the internals. It's why I will never own a Mac.

I feel like an analogous process has happened with software, too. It was far easier to access System Tools in Windows 3.1 than it is in Windows 10, and even basic functions have become onerous. For example, changing the wifi password:

Windows 7: Click wifi icon, right-click network, go to properties, bam.
Windows 10: Find PC settings, go to Network & Internet, go to Wi-Fi section, turn off wifi, click "Manage Wi-Fi Settings", scroll down, click the network, hit "Forget", go to available connections, choose network, enter in new password, continue.

Perhaps there is some security or software efficiency reason for this, but from a user standpoint, it's infuriating.

Don't many programmers and engineers get their start by fucking around with computers and electronics? What will they do when those electronics are in a locked black box?
posted by schroedinger at 9:02 AM on August 8, 2016 [12 favorites]

Wiens tells the story of an independent medical device repair technician in Tanzania who has a website where he shares information on fixing medical equipment such as infant incubators, cardiac monitors and autoclaves.

“He gets legal friction from medical manufacturers all the time,” Wiens says.

He ought to share that friction with the world; I bet some first-world consumers of those products could teach those manufacturers about what friction really is, preferably by way of a well-publicized boycott.
posted by chavenet at 9:04 AM on August 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

I often wonder how many smartphones are tossed in the garbage because their non-removable battery goes south. Time for a new phone! Srsly wtf, it's a battery. Stop gluing them in! I'm talking to you Apple. Green company my ass.
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:08 AM on August 8, 2016 [18 favorites]

Thank you too for making gear out of exotic plastics that can't be glued, can't be welded, can't be solvent welded. A crack forms, a piece breaks off, and there's nothing to be done except watch your expensive widget fall apart.

I think the few authorized repair centers that even exist these days primarily serve to convince customers that they should buy a new one. Always buy a new one.
posted by 1adam12 at 9:14 AM on August 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

FTA: The problem isn’t limited to traditional home electronics. A farmer may have paid for his or her John Deere tractor, a piece of farm equipment that can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But John Deere still owns the software that runs the tractor, and trying to fix it without going to an authorized repair center could put the farmer afoul of copyright laws. This means that, in order to make legal repairs, a farmer in a rural area might have to haul a broken 15-ton tractor for hundreds of miles to an authorized dealer or repair shop. In the harvest season, this could mean a crushing loss of revenue.
posted by Room 641-A at 9:16 AM on August 8, 2016 [16 favorites]

And people wonder why I like vinyl records so much. The record players I use are almost completely mechanical, and require nothing more than screwdrivers and grease to keep in good running order.

The craftspeople who ran repair shops for electronics are disappearing, as are the places teaching these repair skills -- there are no local opportunities for my daughter to learn how to solder, read circuit schematics, and so on. No more "shop class." It's as if repairing a lot of things isn't even thought of as a viable option.

I can imagine even bigger consumer electronics, such as washing machines, or, um John Deer tractors, just becoming trash items when they break. The mind boggles at the contents of local trash heaps.
posted by the matching mole at 9:20 AM on August 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

For contrast, NPR recently ran a story on a Missouri vacuum cleaner museum, and during the interview the curator fired up a 1910 model. Started right up, and sounded smoother than my Dyson. I bet you can take it apart too!
posted by freecellwizard at 9:24 AM on August 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

the matching mole checkout 10 bit works they teach all kinds of cool stuff I'm sure soldering and schematics are among them.
posted by HappyHippo at 9:28 AM on August 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

EFF is also petitioning the FTC to require warning labels that detail the nature and extent of a product's DRM.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:28 AM on August 8, 2016 [8 favorites]

While I still support the right to repair, I think people too often forget that a lot of this stuff isn't implemented to actively thwart repairs, the devices just aren't designed for consumer repair.

Think about TVs, for example. Back in the day they were a lot simpler, but they're also really bulky and heavy. These days, they're not even big computer monitors, they're actual computers. There's a lot going on in there, and we want them as flat as possible, with giant screens, tiny bezels, etc. It makes sense to glue some stuff in, to play Tetris with the components, because the finished product looks better.

Designers have competing goals they have to balance. Over all, the market seems to have decided that it's okay that something might have a 10% chance an unfixable brick in 5 years if it's 20% cheaper, compared to the model that's more expensive and has a 20% chance of (repairable) failure.

You can also generally make something more reliable (less likely to fail in the expected usage life) if it's expected that the device will never be opened. The 5% of users who want to open it up and tinker with it are being outvoted by the 95% who want it to Just Work.

The DRM/proprietary chip bullshit has to end though. If something's designed to be fixed, that's just a different story all together.
posted by explosion at 9:40 AM on August 8, 2016 [21 favorites]

It was freakin' ridiculous and the #1 reason I bought a ThinkPad was because it was so much easier to access the internals. It's why I will never own a Mac.

Oddly enough, before they redesigned it into a fancy trashcan, the Mac Pro was the easiest computer that I've ever had the pleasure to work on. The last of the "cheesegrater" cases had one entire side panel that came right off with a latch, with easy access to hard drives in caddies that plugged into a backplane, cables everywhere routed very neatly out of the way, ready access to RAM and CPUs. They had been like that for a very long time, too, I remember a friend of mine in the mid '90s owning a desktop Mac that was similarly thoughtful in design. It's been a sad thing to see that go away from their product line.
posted by indubitable at 9:45 AM on August 8, 2016 [9 favorites]

In this vein, we need to continue lobbying the W3C not to adopt the EME extension because DRM is by definition not an open standard and prevents you from tinkering.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:04 AM on August 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

explosion: "Designers have competing goals they have to balance. Over all, the market seems to have decided that it's okay that something might have a 10% chance an unfixable brick in 5 years if it's 20% cheaper, compared to the model that's more expensive and has a 20% chance of (repairable) failure."

But customers are paying--in part, at least--for manufacturers' de facto monopoly on repair. It's difficult for third parties to compete, for two reasons:
1. DRM, which is protected by copyright law
2. Constructing things in a way that's impossible to untangle. As you say, that's unavoidable to a certain extent. But technology companies use legal pressure make it more difficult for people to share schematics and other information.

So both problems amount--at least in part--to an abuse of copyright law.
posted by roll truck roll at 10:34 AM on August 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I got Cassandraed soooooo hard over the DMCA. I've issued some limited purpose forgiveness to individual offenders, but I will never forget. And I always but always "told you so" them over it when I see the pattern start up again. Which it does, a lot.

People who don't have any interest in technology still have to use it. They are not going to tinker with anything. They don't have an interest, and tech companies have stuck this layer of superficial complexity on top of even the simplest things, making them seem like they're just impossible to understand. And most people have a pretty low bar for what's too hard. The case is sealed anyway. I probably needed a new one soon (because electronics have like mayfly lifecycles anymore). I wouldn't even know what I was looking at anyway.

And the worst one is that all too often, those same naive users harbor weird just world fantasies about what technology can and can't do, and they have completely inaccurate notions about consumer protections in place somewhere. They literally do not believe you when you tell them some of the things that their technology is and isn't doing.

I do kind of get why. People depend on their electronics. A lot of people have their lives pretty tied up in their technology, and the technology adoption cycle has gotten to where, more often than not, the people who spend the most on electronics are the most incurious about how they work and what they're doing. They don't care that the battery cases are sealed or that their data is in the stupid "cloud." They don't fiddle with their stuff or adjust the settings, and they'd never dream of actually trying to fix anything physically. If something stops working, they throw it away and get a new one. They just need their phone to work the way they expect it to. More and more of them don't even have general purpose computers, and of those who do, a lot of them consider them unopenable boxes. I've gotten a reputation for being a technophobe, ironically, because I have all this relatively old stuff that I still use. (I will cop to "Luddite," because the Luddites had some pretty good points.) And I'll be clear here: I'm not too high level. I don't know how to take most electronics apart, or what I'm looking at when I do. I can build a computer from components and install third party firmware and do simple repairs, and that's about it.

What people do need to care about are all the computers they don't think of as computers. You might not know how to hack your pacemaker or your insulin pump, but last I checked, there was plenty proof of concept showing that many medical equipment manufacturers were sending data to and from medical devices using unencrypted wireless signals, for example. It's pretty unlikely that someone is personally going to target you, medical device wearer, standing close enough to you to deliver you a heart attack or a fatal dose of insulin, but if someone really wanted to, it's not impossible.

And extend that to the things outside of your body that you trust your life with. Your car, your security system, and the things that you trust with your personal information, like all the pointlessly 'smart' devices. Just under the surface of a lot of the conveniences people have come to rely on are some pretty scary vulnerabilities.

I mean, I totally get it. I don't want to force people to learn how to take their devices apart, and I don't expect them to totally understand what the devices they use are doing. What I do wish I could force people to do is stop dismissing people who complain about it.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:06 AM on August 8, 2016 [27 favorites]

ernielundquist: "I've gotten a reputation for being a technophobe, ironically, because I have all this relatively old stuff that I still use."

I'd never thought about that, but you're completely right. In some circles, the image of a techie as someone who's constantly tinkering with stuff has been completely replaced by that of someone who's constantly buying stuff. That makes me sad.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:16 AM on August 8, 2016 [39 favorites]

This also makes it hard to build and accumulate to improve economic circumstances. Sure, you can save for a couple of years to get a good computer/smartphone/washer/dryer, but you'll only get to use it until it breaks; then you're out the money you saved, you have no washer/dryer, and you also don't have the fun stuff you could have spent that money on.

Whereas, fixable stuff not only means you can maintain the things you worked hard to acquire -- which means, for example, you can spend your former laundromat time studying a new skill or cooking healthy food -- but you can also keep up your lifestyle with smaller, more achievable expenditures on repairs and parts, which helps other people build up economically.

It's also a very different society that understands it's "things" versus one that just uses, discards, and doesn't question. You can't be fully aware of the quality of your stuff if you can never really see what's inside it. The behavioral implications are pervasive.

This is an incredibly important issue.
posted by amtho at 11:43 AM on August 8, 2016 [19 favorites]

Oddly enough, before they redesigned it into a fancy trashcan, the Mac Pro was the easiest computer that I've ever had the pleasure to work on.

Oh my god, yes, that thing was incredible. The first generation of unibody MacBook Pros weren't even that bad, either. Anything on the mainboard was a nightmare, but batteries, disk, and RAM were all easily accessible for maintenance. And those are the things that tend to fail (or need upgrading) anyway.

I think, in the long run, a lot of these issues will turn out to be an artifact of temporarily accelerated hardware generations. At the moment, companies can convince consumers to upgrade every two years or so, which is about how long it takes for something to break and require service, given normal wear-and-tear. But how much better can we really make smartphones, at this point? They're a mature technology that will only really be replaced by something revolutionary.

So I wouldn't be surprised if we get one or two more generations of impenetrable brick-phones before repairability becomes a priority again, because they'll either be luxury devices only owned by the super rich while the rest of us all hide out in mud hovels or else the sexy consumer market will be dominated by increasingly advanced cyberbrain implants or something.

All of which said, though, I'm genuinely grateful for folks like the EFF who are fighting the stupid, awful laws that enable blatant anti-consumer behaviour.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:43 AM on August 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

if you actually took the "right to repair" seriously for software it would make a lot of the SV interests that fund outfits like the EFF very uncomfortable.

software can't "eat the world" if hardware makers use their platforms as walled gardens. but, if you thought of, say, a car as software. then, traditionally, you can take apart and reprogram practically any part of that car. try doing that with Microsoft Word, or the Google services/apps on your "open source" android phone.
posted by at 11:44 AM on August 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure that decompiling/hacking Android apps is particularly difficult at all. The big loophole for openness for the likes of Google is of course the fact that their business is mostly a series of remote services, the code for which you will never see. So they can and do give away their tools - extremely powerful ones - without exposing any of the infrastructure they built with those tools. This takes the question of what "openness" means To an entirely new place.
posted by atoxyl at 12:36 PM on August 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

See also the right to see the computer.
posted by quite unimportant at 12:52 PM on August 8, 2016

It wasn't immediately obviously available in the click-through links in TFA, so I thought I'd share iFixit's Self-Repair Manifesto. It's pretty great. I have it hanging in my office.

Suffice it to say this issue is near and dear to me, being the nerd always trying to burrow his way to the metal. Black boxes are anathema.
posted by quite unimportant at 1:00 PM on August 8, 2016 [7 favorites]

To that end, I found this precision tool kit that it fantastic for taking apart electronics that can still be taken apart. It's got bits for every type of screw that you might encounter (but be warned that they are magnetic) but it's all the other tools that are the really useful parts like the two little wedges for prying snapped together pieces together without breaking them.
posted by VTX at 1:18 PM on August 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Louis Rossmann is one of my favorite champions of the Right to Repair. His channel also has some highly entertaining* videos of repair + chatter.

posted by radiosilents at 1:22 PM on August 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

if you actually took the "right to repair" seriously for software it would make a lot of the SV interests that fund outfits like the EFF very uncomfortable.

Their 2015 report (scroll a bit for the financials) makes for some interesting reading. It looks a lot like the bulk of their funding comes from individual members, and I'd be willing to bet that a lot of the "corporate" section comes from the kind of people who are EFF members pressuring companies they work for to contribute. I know from specific experience at three consecutive employers that dollars and in-kind donations to the EFF and related causes often come from places where open code and/or hardware is a core aspect of the business, and where a lot of people are in fact committed to taking that right to repair seriously.

If you want to suggest that a lot of those people work for SV outfits who are poisoning the entire ecosystem by building closed systems, well, you probably aren't wrong. People do stuff for a living that isn't totally in line with their personal values. And yeah, the industry at large, holy shit does it have problems, but I'm not sure this characterization is fair to the people you are actually talking about.
posted by brennen at 1:23 PM on August 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, man ... I HATE macos/ios (and I use it daily and, whilst android programming is main focus, I also do ios stuff ... on a freaking mac with it's horrible file-manager and terrible read/write to usb speed [and oh-so-muc-more crap]) but that mac chassis? I really wish I had the time/patience to retrofit it for use as a top-of-the-line pc.
The thing is built with awesome, pro-server grade modularity inside.

As for user-serviceable software?

Oh, no.

And there are a number of reasons for that:
-that is a whole nother level of complexity to add to everything. That's gonna take time, money, often processing power/ram. It would take software longer to develop and be more costly and more crashprone. And, no, this does not automatically mean user can fix that.
-The only way to do that is to open source it all. And that is just not gonna happen. OSS is fine, but sometimes dev's gotta get paid to eat.
-unintended consequences: a bad userpatch that proliferates through the install base. Or look at Pokemon GO where everyone trying to access the servers using the 'API'/REST connection (ie not using the game to play it, but from something else) just to scrape the servers for data for their website is just crushing the servers and killing the game for the players. And can you imagine the griefers?!

Now, what we see in medical devices and those tractors is this: we need a basic set of software user-rights. An ANTI-DMCA if you will which states that the software shall be secure and not leak private data. That it will do what it says it does with no revocation of those things unless that can be a seperate. voluntary, skipable/non-essential update. That it will run on the target platform (inasmuch that does not change) for perpetuity. That updates will not be forced but be seperate. voluntary, skipable/non-essential to the running of the program on the target machine/OS).

And in some cases the software must be fixed within a time period, with onsite/virtual support if necessary.

And in a very few cases it MUST be open source: medical equipment, voting software, maybe the communication/encryption module of all software, so these things are auditable.

But Word/Office? Maya/3dsmax? Photoshop? Pokemon GO?

Nah. At least, if they hold up to the above.

Same thing for hardware: you shouldn't have the immediate right to print out any car part. Go buy it or a licence to print it from the company who made/designed it.

Until the part is no longer available and you need it to run existing hardware, of course.

The thing is we do need failsafes for orphaned hardware/software. I remember Gabe saying there was an actual plan/fix for if Steam ever went bankrupt/offline, so you would still be able to play your games (I do hope that is [still] true).
posted by MacD at 1:44 PM on August 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Unfixability is not only infuriating, it's not new. In the mid-80s I bought a Pioneer cassette deck with 'full logic'. It could do all kinds of things automagically. After about a year, one day it just went clunk. A hardware guy, I opened it up to discover that the 'automagic' component was not circuitry but a little cube of pawls and levers and latches ... made of plastic. Somewhere in that little cube, something was broken.

That was in the same era that this started: when you opened the hood of a car, all the space under the hood was filled with crap. Just getting to the spark plugs meant an hour of removing stuff. In the same era, carburetors became so complicated that expert mechanics, not just long-time talented amateurs, could not repair them ... even if they could get the service manuals.

The assholes have been designing stuff this way for a long time. We're not supposed to fix, even want to fix, or even ask where all the broken shit goes. Just keep paying, and paying, and paying ...

So a rumble in the jungle is overdue and, if it actually materializes, very welcome.
posted by Twang at 2:53 PM on August 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

The ironic thing about the mention of open source software above is that there is quite a bit of for-profit OSS out there, actually, and those projects often make money by charging for... consulting and support contracts. I.e., installation and repair.
posted by tobascodagama at 3:04 PM on August 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't mind people publishing OSS and making money off the consulting and support cycle, but it does introduce a certain perverse incentive to design it in a way that it would NEED that support...

It is SO hard to take out perverse incentives out of ANY setup...
posted by DreamerFi at 3:30 PM on August 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you can't fix it, you don't own it.

It is a different time though. I'm told that most appliances don't have the same lifespan of appliances made 20 or 30 years ago. And having bought 5 new appliances as part of a reno 9 years ago, the dryer crapped out in 2 years due to an epic fail in their controller board; we just grin and bear it by just using the manual timings. The printing on the washer and dryer has all started rubbing off; we have a white 30 year old Toshiba microwave that looks (and works) like brand new.

Our vehicles are 14 and 16 years old. Being Japanese, they have run like champions for the most part, but of course are showing their age. I fear having to buy something newer that are dependent on a few overpriced modules that have disturbingly short warranties.

Maybe this is the new battleground: ok, have your DRM and your "authorized service only" restriction; but give me a decent multi-year warranty on it. (hard to do this for computers and phones, which are already obsolete before you take delivery)
posted by Artful Codger at 4:40 PM on August 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

The big loophole for openness for the likes of Google is of course the fact that their business is mostly a series of remote services, the code for which you will never see.

Android OS is a complete example of how Stallmanism fails completely. Despite the OS being entirely GPLd, users are no better of than under OSXs BSD license because Google has effectively created a user land, with largely open-source tools, which is not repairable in any way because the code lives on a server you have no access to.

Which is exactly the sort of thing hardware manufacturers are doing that so offends people. And that's not even getting into how Google's business model had turned your phone into the most total surveillance device ever imagined: all open-source! You can see exactly the sort of issues that will come up with the Muskmobile: a car with a lot of software inside, which is keeping very careful track of you, talking to servers, and can be easily disabled remotely. You repair or mod your Tesla at the forbearance of Elon and his investors. It will be fascinating if/when there is an Applemobile...

The EFF got really quiet about the DMCA once it became clear that "safe harbor" protected most of SV and it's telling that they only want to rewrite part of it now now that the IoT is/was hot. also, see: their synchronized advocacy with Google et al on "net neutrality"...
posted by at 5:10 PM on August 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Despite the OS being entirely GPLd, users are no better of than under OSXs BSD license because Google has effectively created a user land, with largely open-source tools, which is not repairable in any way because the code lives on a server you have no access to.

Almost everything in the Internet of Things gimmick is like this. Home Depot recently discontinued a line of "smart" outlets, which went from $42 per two-pack to $8 for clearance. On hearing that they were powered by the ESP8266 (a forum member looked up the FCC application) I bought all four packs that were left in the area. I figured that four bucks was worth it just for the microcontroller-compatible relay outlet, and the CPU was lagniappe.

So of course before flashing the firmware I decided to eavesdrop a bit on them. Turns out they are completely dependent on a server at a hard-coded IP address in China. And they transmit EVERYTHING to that server -- your schedule, every time the relay operates, and even pings every minute or so to let the server know it's alive and (apparently) update the time, which the outlet doesn't keep very well because it has no dedicated clock chip or backup battery for same.

So the day the vendor gets tired of paying for the bandwidth for this server, every one of these things (except the ones I've modded for my own use, ha-ha) turns into a little white brick. I think you might still be able to turn it on and off by pressing the little button on the front, but for anything else including all those nifty scheduling and phone functions, forget it.

And of course it doesn't say anything about this on the packaging or documentation; it just magically works, innit great? And if you trust them to keep those servers running very long, consider you can't even trust Google. Well, maybe that isn't so surprising, but at least the Revolv servers aren't in China.
posted by Bringer Tom at 5:51 PM on August 8, 2016 [9 favorites]

Oh I forgot to mention, those wifi outlets also send your wifi SSID and password to the server in China. Unencrypted. There is absolutely nothing creepy about that, right?
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:41 PM on August 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Most people have neither the time nor the skills to repair their own electronics. As electronics get more complex, the pool of people capable of repairing them shrinks.
posted by Ferreous at 7:28 PM on August 8, 2016

If you can't fix it, you don't own it.

If You Can't Fix It, You Don't Own It - "Who owns our stuff? The answer used to be obvious. Now, with electronics integrated into just about everything we buy, the answer has changed. We live in a digital age, and even the physical goods we buy are complex. Copyright is impacting more people than ever before because the line between hardware and software, physical and digital has blurred. The issue goes beyond cellphone unlocking, because once we buy an object — any object — we should own it. We should be able to lift the hood, unlock it, modify it, repair it... without asking for permission from the manufacturer. But we really don't own our stuff anymore (at least not fully); the manufacturers do. Because modifying modern objects requires access to information: code, service manuals, error codes, and diagnostic tools." (Self-Repair Manifesto)

also btw...
Intel & ME, and why we should get rid of ME - "If you did not know, built into all modern Intel-based platforms is a small, low-power computer subsystem called the Intel Management Engine (ME). It performs various tasks while the system is in sleep mode, during the boot process, and also when your system is running... The ME firmware runs various proprietary programs created by Intel for the platform, including its infamous Active Management Technology (AMT), Intel's Boot Guard, and an audio and video Digital Restrictions Management system specifically for ultra-high definition media called 'Intel Insider'. While some of this technology is marketed to provide you with convenience and protection, what it requires from you, the user, is to give up control over your computer. This control benefits Intel, their business partners, and large media companies. Intel is effectively leasing-out to the third-parties the rights to control how, if, and when you can access certain data and software on your machine."

How the TPP Will Affect You and Your Digital Rights - "The TPP reflects the worst aspects of the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)."

oh and...
Ban all closed source [voting] machines - "A scary in-depth story about how hack-able voting machines are. We need to go low-tech."
posted by kliuless at 7:42 PM on August 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Android OS is a complete example of how Stallmanism fails completely. Despite the OS being entirely GPLd, users are no better of than under OSXs BSD license because Google has effectively created a user land, with largely open-source tools, which is not repairable in any way because the code lives on a server you have no access to.

a) as a quibble here, I don't think that most of Android is GPLed, outside of the kernel. The official word seems to be that they're pushing the Apache license and/or MIT/BSD-style licensing in the general case. This is not exactly the viral copyleft of "Stallmanism".

b) I think it's basically true that the free software movement has failed deeply by being subsumed into the infrastructure of its own defeat. So yeah, this is the real problem with Android: The openness of system-level components hasn't, in practical terms, done anything to prevent an ocean of closed-source, user-hostile bullshit from being deployed on just about every system in use. To a first approximation this is the problem of the web, reframed with different clients. And the "IoT", and, and, and. This is the problem of networked computation in general right now.

If anything, this kind of suggests that copyleft as practiced has been insufficiently radical in approach. Not that I really know what to do about it.
posted by brennen at 9:30 PM on August 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

What happens when you can't trust the software that's supposed to be keeping you alive? ("actually, this software should be DRM-ed so that it ceases to function if you don't keep up with the licensing fees.")

-Auditing Algorithms
-Make Algorithms Accountable: "We need more due process protections to assure the accuracy of the algorithms that have become ubiquitous in our lives."

Who Should Control Our Thinking Machines? - "Say you succeed and create a super intelligence. What happens next? Do you donate the technology to the United Nations? I think it should be. We've talked about this a lot. Actually Eric Schmidt [executive chairman of Alphabet, Google's parent] has mentioned this. We've talked to him. We think that AI has to be used for the benefit of everyone. It should be used in a transparent way, and we should build it in an open way, which we've been doing with publishing everything we write. There should be scrutiny and checks and balances on that. I think ultimately the control of this technology should belong to the world, and we need to think about how that’s done. Certainly, I think the benefits of it should accrue to everyone. Again, there are some very tricky questions there and difficult things to go through, but certainly that's our belief of where things should go."
posted by kliuless at 10:23 PM on August 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've held on to my 4 year old Galaxy Nexus because, it still works, though it can't run Waze without seizing but fortunately Waze is not necessary to me, and it has a removable/replaceable battery (new batteries for it go for $6 though I don't know how much longer they'll be available). I get the sense that a sealed battery will not have much life to it after 4 years but eventually I will probably have to get a new phone. Upon googling phones with removable batteries there are still a few Android phones with them but none have stock Android from what I can see.

Repairability and maintenance is why I build my own PCs, though of course this is not for everyone even though it's quite simple to do. Tool free case with 10 drive bays and every component within replaceable is hard to find in retail channels.
posted by juiceCake at 6:46 AM on August 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

There is a variant of the GPL that is intended to close the application service "loophole" - thing is, basically nobody wants to use it.
posted by atoxyl at 9:48 AM on August 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

-The Coming Civil War over General Purpose Computing
-Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information @FrankPasquale
-Reining in the Big Promise of Big Data: Transparency, Inequality, and New Regulatory Frontiers
-Obfuscated Obfuscation: "Software obfuscation was originally used to protect proprietary software from reverse engineers looking to bypass copy protection. If the debugger output is tortuous enough, maybe the engineer will get frustrated and go watch porn instead... These methods worked against not just DRM-crackers, but company competitors seeking access to intellectual property. The cat-and-mouse game of software protection gave rise to a whole industry of obfuscation tools designed to chew up a program source file and spit out a snake pit. Of course, as soon as reverse engineers encountered obfuscated code, they started building deobfuscation tools. Thus came the impetus to obfuscate the obfuscation."
posted by kliuless at 9:56 AM on August 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Open source doesn't mean free. It doesn't even mean collaborative. All open source means is that you can see the source and people who know what they're looking at can see how a given system works. That person might not be you. It's usually not me. But there's a subset of people who do know what they're looking at, and who can raise the alarms when something is sketchy.

There is plenty of money to be made in open source. Android is the most popular operating system by far. Sure, it's Android, and it is fucked up and I personally loathe it so you don't need to tell me, but it's technically open source, and people are making money with it.

Open source development has largely financed the lavish lifestyle I enjoy today. The companies I've worked for developed hardware and software, built turnkey systems, built and managed infrastructure, plenty of stuff. Most of our business clients were providing services to their customers that had nothing to do with technology. And IIRC, we usually lost money providing support, so we were motivated to reduce support calls.

Closing source code protects corporate interests a few different ways. Most obviously, it can sort of sometimes keep people from copying and reusing a company's IP. Sort of. Sometimes. For a little while. Another purpose is security through obscurity, which is counterproductive and never ever works. The big one, though, is that it protects corporations from oversight. It keeps end users from seeing what their systems are actually doing with their data and, in the case of medical devices, with their actual bodies.

And many of these products are marketed and sold primarily to naive users. Obviously, medical devices cut across the spectrum because there's less personal choice involved, but with things like "smart" devices designed for ease of use, the design and marketing are targeted toward the technically naive. This is intentional. Those developers know who their userbase is.

And there's very little accountability when, inevitably, those systems and everything users have entrusted to them are compromised. Open sourcing wouldn't entirely eliminate that, of course, but it would help.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:16 AM on August 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

There is a variant of the GPL that is intended to close the application service "loophole" - thing is, basically nobody wants to use it.

Yeah, and maybe if history had been different and the GPL itself had been stricter in its definition of "use" before the internet ate everything and the incentives became clear to everyone who knows they can profit off open code by using it as leverage to build closed, power-concentrating systems, we'd be in a materially different situation.

Or maybe it would just have crippled uptake of the GPL and we'd be worse off. I really don't know.
posted by brennen at 10:40 AM on August 9, 2016

the latter is more what I'm suggesting - if one had to open-source software that interacted with GPL code (it seems like AGPL doesn't actually do this?) it would simply see much less use. Even regular GPL2 seems to be a bit out of fashion these days in favor of MIT/BSD.
posted by atoxyl at 11:17 AM on August 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

There is also a balance of time in the repairable equation.
Let's talk about appliances. 15 years ago, I bought a washer and dryer set from a retired appliance repairman who went around buying abandoned/broken washers and dryers and putting them back into service. The units were 1960's era vintage and butt simple and very reliable, which is why they were still working when I sold them in 2007.

Why did I replace them? Because the washer used a shit-ton of water and the dryer had no sensor so clothes were either wet or over dry. If you went to over dry, you were wasting energy. Looking at having a shit ton of soiled clothing from my very young kids (see what I did there?), I thought it was a good idea to get a more energy efficient set. We got a Maytag set, which was supposed to be a good model. I went through 3 control panel boards between the two. When the washer started leaking badly and a local repair person couldn't fix it, we dumped the washer. After the second time the control panel board blew on the dryer, it started getting harder to even find replacements. I managed to find schematics for them and found that (likely) the control panel is probably just a SPI device connected to the actual controller of the dryer.
SPI is a standard electronics interconnect mechanism and is really just a set of serial commands sent back and forth. In this case it's probably things like:
"Hey - did anyone push a button?"
"Hey - set your display to 13."
"Hey - did anyone push a button?"
"Hey - set your display to 12."
Whatever protocol it uses may be higher level than that, but I wouldn't expect it.

I pinged Maytag to see if they were willing to cough up the communications spec for a product that was clearly not going to be supported anymore. You know, for posterity. Nope. No way.

But let's for the moment consider what would happen if they did hand over that spec (if they even have it). It's not particularly hard to write a code such that given a list of SPI commands and responses, it turns it into a program to run on, say, an Arduino. This could mean that you could make a board from an Arduino that replaces any washer/dryer that uses a SPI based control panel. A stock Arduino won't likely be a good mechanical fit, but maybe a micro. Who knows. Still, this is where time comes into the equation. Even though I have the inclination and the skill, I sure as heck don't have the time, even given the full spec. It's still possible without the spec. You hook up a logic analyzer to the SPI lines and watch the data go by and reverse engineer the spec, but that's still more time I don't have.

On the other side of the equation, at my last job, we had a series of LCD monitors made by ViewSonic around the office. They were all about the same age and they were all failing in exactly the same way. Pretty soon, we were running out of monitors. We had been bought by a larger company and their willingness to replace the monitors was pretty low. They wanted to switch us all to laptaps, anyhow (actually, they wanted to replace us all with cut-rate Russian programmers, which they did eventually, but that's another story). When one of my monitors died, we were out of replacements and our corporate overlords denied my request to go out and buy one and instead, put one on order, but rather than being shipped to me directly, it was shipped to California first, then to me in Massachusetts. And there was a delay. So I was unable to work. I spent a morning taking apart broken monitors and discovered that nearly all of them had capacitor plague. I contacted ViewSonic because why not? They offered to have us ship them the monitors and attempt to diagnose and repair them, but no guarantee and we would still be charged if they failed to repair them. No thanks. I noted the ratings and ordered a handful of replacement capacitors. They arrived in two days. I desoldered the old ones, soldered in the new ones and was able to thus repair a handful of the dead monitors.
Now mind you, it would have cost less in terms of lost time for me to go to a local brick-and-mortar shop and return with a working monitor and request a reimbursement (that would have likely been denied since they already denied my request to go out and buy one).

If you want some fun, see the EEVBlog, where David L. Jones puts up videos of himself dissecting old hardware, usually sent in by his followers. Sometimes, he even does repair videos.
posted by plinth at 6:44 AM on August 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

I wasn't planning on jailbreaking my phone this time around, but Apple's new & unstoppable nagging to upgrade to the latest iOS 9.3.4 (the sole purpose of which is to block the jailbreak) put me over the edge and last night I jailbroke the phone on 9.3.3 while I still could. Fun and easy, glad I did it: fast animations, lockscreen calendar events, custom carrier name, fixes UI problems (the stupid statusbar size change between locked & unlocked — wherefore art thou Jonathan Ive?), ability to move multiple icons at once, more icons in folders (instead of 3x3), volume changes in status bar instead of blocking center of screen, block ads everywhere (not just Safari) etc. Oh, and it gets rid of Apple's nag for the ridiculous update. Get fucked, Apple.
posted by exogenous at 6:57 AM on August 10, 2016

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