This story over at Wired starts out sounding like one of John’s worst nightmares: a robotic parking garage shuts down, trapping users cars within it. However, what underlies the story is something that we all really need to worry about with the the more restrictive and complex software licensing issues we’re facing in the future.
The story behind the “robot garage gone bad” is one of software licensing. The software that runs the robot was set to expire, unless the city that owned the garage renewed it. For whatever reason, the city decided they weren’t going to renew their contract with the company, and kicked them off the premises. The robot control software dutifully ceased working after the license expired, leaving the cars in the garage stranded. Typical of these cases, everyone involved ran to the nearest courtroom to sue each other.
This brings up a point: as the vital infrastructure of our society becomes more complex, so do the guarantees and licenses that goes with them. It was stupid for the city to buy a garage with, essentially, an expiration date, since it puts the company the system is licensed from into a position of incredible power. Imagine if a construction company could say “hey, you renew our contract or that nice bridge we built you will fall down.” Without the software aspect of the infrastructure, the government could go shopping for a cheaper company to maintain the bridge or whatever structure. With software, which is difficult (if not impossible) to maintain if you didn’t write it, and is protected by copyright, patents, and trade secret law, you have the ultimate in vendor lock-in. You can’t possibly shop around to another company, because no other company can legally maintain the software.
Think of all the things that the government now buys which contains software: military vehicles, air traffic control systems, flood control systems, voting machines, computers for administering Social Security, etc. etc. All of them, potentially, could ave the same problem, if the bureaucrats who are making the purchasing decisions aren’t reading the fine print.
Ultimately, the solution for the government is to demand the right to the source code of all software, and the right to maintain and alter that code for everything it buys (or, of course, just require that open source software be used). It needs to own its own copy outright. Not only will this protect us from a company essentially being able to commit legal blackmail, but it will also protect us against cases where companies go out of business, leaving their assets either lost or perhaps tied up in courts by squabbling creditors.
This programmed obsolescence also plagues the consumer. Computer game maker Electronic Arts recently announced there were pulling the plug on online play for its older titles. At first blush, this doesn’t really seem all that unusual… after all, software (even games) becomes obsolete eventually, and support will stop for them. Except, in this case, EA is pulling the plug on many of its sports 2005 titles, some of which undoubtedly are still on the shelves at some stores. Online play is a big part of these games, so disabling it cripples them. Why would they do this? To force their customers to shell out another $60+ for the 2006 versions, of course. Considering that EA has bought up the rights to most of the major sports leagues around the world, if you want to play football with someone else online using for-real NFL teams, you have no choice but to chuck your 2005 game and buy the 2006 game. What you thought was an outright purchase becomes, essentially, a subscription service.
Built-in obsolescence isn’t just for software products. HP is being sued for allegedly embedding a chip in their printer cartridges that makes the cartridge indicate it’s empty after a certain period of time has elapsed, whether the cartridge still has ink in it or not. If true, this is a great boon to HP. No matter how infrequently you print, they know you will need to buy replacements from them (and only them, since many printers now require cartridges to have special chips in them to identify the cartridge’s maker) on a regular basis. Not only are you locked in to the vendor, you’re forced to replace the part whether it has ink left or not.
Unlike the government, there’s not much consumers can do about this now. If a company chooses to embed deep in its warranty/license that their products will self-destruct after a certain period of time, how many customers will notice until its too late? Perishable foods have expiration dates printed on them very noticeably. Maybe its time for software and electronics to have the same labeling requirements.