Field fixes

It used to be pretty easy to tell when you were done with a piece of embedded software: You wrote the bits to mag tape, the kind on a reel, boxed it up with a big check and mailed it off to chip company in California (if you were already in Cali you just went down the street a few blocks and saved some postage).  Then you waited a couple of months, and if the mask ROMs you got back were in runnable condition, you sold it.

These days, with everything connected and usually updatable, there’s no real “We’re done” event. Oh, there’s a ship party, but usually we go back to fixing bugs after that. If your toaster is suddenly making charcoal briquettes because of a bug in its internal clock, you can just hook the thing up to the internet and grab the latest firmware. The team that did the toaster software is on the hook for fixes.

Briinngggg!!!! [1]

“Urm . . . three bloody o’clock in the — wazzup?”

“We have eighteen hundred bug reports of the iToast 5G sending fountains of flames to the ceiling in the past few hours. Can you come in and fix it?”

“Er, why do I need to drive in? I can log in and fix it from here.”

“Also, explosions. We really want everyone away from those toasters.  You should probably avoid the kitchen and just hit your house’s main breaker on your way here.”

I’m not necessarily saying that the quality of things has dropped — it’s freaking awesome being able to add functionality to products in the field, or being able to fix crap that you fat-fingered at 2AM — but somehow, I miss being done.


[1] Yes, I know that telephones don’t go “Brrrinnngggg” any more.

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4 Responses to Field fixes

  1. Mike Albaugh says:

    Some phones still go “Brrrinnngggg”. For example the 202 in our hallway, or my wife’s iPhone when our daughter calls (my “ring” is a klaxon, BTW, while wife’s ring on my phone is Sting’s “I’ll be watching you”. Yeah, my analyst would have a field-day with that, if I had an analyst 🙂

    Anyway, I always felt that one of the coolest things about embedded development was that we were on the hook for both the system hardware and the cost of updates. So unlike the “desktop boys”, we couldn’t just say “well, you can’t expect a screensaver so awsome to run on a mere dual-core 3Ghz Xeon”, and we also couldn’t say “Well, if you want to even report that bug you will need to buy our $100/month/seat protection plan.” It helps get the whole department focused on quality when errors are a cost, rather than an opportunity for up-sell.

    On the other hand, we did have to hear constantly about what cowboys “game programmers” were, from folks who shipped serious stuff like Pascal compilers that would re-format your system drive if you muffed the command-line.

  2. Orn Hansen says:

    “I’m not necessarily saying that the quality of things has dropped — it’s freaking awesome being able to add functionality to products in the field, or being able to fix crap that you fat-fingered at 2AM – but somehow, I miss being done.”

    It’s a very complicated, and non-productive relationship really.

    I understand you were at Atari, well I still got an Atari STE, and work on it as a hobby every now and then. And the 68k, even if it had its fault, was still a far better option than the rival. In my opinion, I think Moto went down the AT/T road, putting it’s money on the workstation market, instead of the PC market.

    It’s sort of a never ending job, but the problem with it isn’t that you can be called to do the fixes, but rather that the fixer has everyone else hooked up, waiting for the newest firmware.

    We have derived work, all of us, which we want to make available. But the moment you have it available, Mr. Linus has his kernel 3.2 ready for release, and your work is suddenly not working correctly.

    It’s really a bad situation, because at some point one has to say “stop”, this is it. And then that part is a brick, that others can use to build their walls. But instead, I still have problems with getting my sound over HDMI to work, on my little Linux box, and all the solutions that are out there, are outdated, because they’re a couple of months old. And we still have a broken sound over hdmi, or sound interface in general, as a result.

    From the day Unics separated from Multics, we went on a long stroll from Unics to Multics. But after 40 years, we’re still almost where we started. And I’m still stuck with my crummy desktop, and with having to bother myself with drawing buttons on my user interface, which is way more complicated and less productive per user, than in the mainframe terminal days. Users haven’t grown any quicker pressing buttons, and user interfaces more or less are equaly quick, even if they look a hoot better than before.

    But I’m still no closer to my goal, and I’m still waiting for the next version of the Kernel, Qt or Gtk, to continue work.

    No, we’d all be better off if we’d start to hear more of that word “done”, instead of waiting for a new firmware options. We need better administration of projects, and less “outsourcing”.

  3. Problem with “done” is that it is entirely it works for me™ type of thingy. Those who source their happy from outside will never get it. I have a droid phone, running 2.1. I can update it to latest Droid 4ICS. I know how. But I won’t.

    Sure, lots stuff would work better. Even a mere update to the 2.2 would result in having youtube app that would have been updated to the thumb up/down type of thingy, since they discontinued 2.1 youtube and I’m stuck with stars voting.

    But, I can really live with that. When recently upgrading from my age-old 2005 symbian40 nokia semi-smart phone, to fullon smartphone, I knew exactly what I wanted out of the whole system for me. I wanted only to have a internet radio with me via mobile net, something that my symbian40 nokia didn’t have. Sure, I was planning before to setup some elaborate gstreamer type of thing to transmangle radiostream to format my old phone understood, but then I saw this, and thought F-it and got me some 50€ used droid phone. After some dremel polishing wheel TLC and new battery, its like brand new.

    All because I really grew to like some Aussie radio (triple-j and recently mix106.5.

    Of course some might raise their hayforks and torches concerns about this simplistic approach. Most likely those who chose to make their lives dependent on the complexity. (same thing goes all over the place, i.e. with nutrition folks battling big pharma who sell repackaged nutrition at premium, vegans battling the death industry since its really not needed for humans to eat meat, small house / tumbleweed house movement battling the planning industry which pushes building codes that mandate some house be built no smaller than X, for forced upselling and so on)

    With internet in the end its like in this comic strip: Abstruse Goose – the birth of the internet And it is one of the reasons I really like to spend time playing with my cat more these days, and jogging, and learning massage since I really like to pet my cat so learning how to get money from petting other humans is a natural consequence of things (plus some software thingy on the side, and veggie “Victory Garden” as pleasant extra). And doing pretty much anything else rather than engaging someone’s crazy who is outside of my tribe. It is a global crossword puzzle, with more or less same benefits… the flick “The Net” with Bullock pretty much explains it all 🙂

    I do exceptions for when some duche Shuttleworth will break my precious ubuntu so it’s really unusable, so I go out to fix it to the way I liked it. But that’s it. There is more to life (at least mine) than one-upping someone else.

    “For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”
    ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

    Why is the world so screwed up?
    How do we fix it?
    Matt, ex gamedev designer

    • Small update. I actually upflashed my phone to cyanogen7.1 (android 2.3.7, ) for battery life. Surprisingly a magical a wifi hotspot is now possible in a phone not suited for it, for sharing my cell internet connection with my lappy, o yay to that. And some visual bling bling which is fun too, tho core use is still radio on the go… and some net when im checking labels at store and see some E??? thingy

      Still, its not cyanogen9 which has android ICS.. or not even cyanogen 7.2 since its too cutting edge so phone might reboot on its own or something. i totally went for stability so i dont have to think about it anymore.

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