Do you own the device you just bought?


Professor of Law, Washington and Lee University, has a great blog post that echoes exactly the same sentiments I heard Richard Stallman explain his original drive for open source, way back in the 1980’s.

Fairfield argues that we don’t own the devices we buy, we are merely buying a one-time license to the software within them. He makes a great case. It’s worth the read.

One key reason we don’t control our devices is that the companies that make them seem to think – and definitely act like – they still own them, even after we’ve bought them. A person may purchase a nice-looking box full of electronics that can function as a smartphone, the corporate argument goes, but they buy a license only to use the software inside. The companies say they still own the software, and because they own it, they can control it. It’s as if a car dealer sold a car, but claimed ownership of the motor.

My favorite counter-example of this is the Logitech Squeezebox network music player system I use.  Originally created by Slim Devices, as far back as 2000, with their first music player launched in 2001. Slim Devices were acquired by Logitech in 2006, who then abandoned the product line in 2012.

I started using Logitech Squeezebox in 2008, first by buying a Squeezebox Boom, then a Radio, another Boom, a Touch and have subsequently bought used Duet, and for my main living room, the audiophile quality Transporter.

While there are virtually no new client/players, there is a thriving client base built around the Raspberry Pi hardware with both client software builds and add-on audio hardware, as well as server builds to use the Pi. I’ve hacked some temporary preferences into the code to solve minor problems, but by far the most impressive enhancements to the long abandoned, official, server codebase are the extensions to keep up with changes in streaming services like the BBC iPlayer radio, Spotify, DSD play and streaming and many more enhancements. For any normal, closed source platform any one of these enhancements would likely have been impossible, and for many users made the hardware redundant.

The best place to start in the Squeezebox world is over on the forums, hosted, of course, at http://forums.slimdevices.com/

When my 1-month Ring (video) doorbell failed. It was all I could do to get Ring to respond. I spent nearly 4-hours on the phone with tech support. Not only did I have no control, the doorbell had stopped talking to their service, but they couldn’t really help. After the second session with support, I just said “look I’m done can you send a replacement?” – The tech support agent agreed they would, but 10-days later I was still waiting for even a shipping notice, much less a replacement. While the door bell worked as a door bell, none of the services, motion detection, door bell rings were any good as their services were unavailable to my door bell.

You don’t have to give up control when you buy a new device. You do own the skeleton of the hardware, buy you’ll have to make informed choices, and probably will give up control, if you want to own the soul of the machine, it’s software.

2 Responses to “Do you own the device you just bought?”


  1. 1 Mark Cathcart September 22, 2017 at 9:06 am

    Here is another great example, and an angle I hadn’t thought to include. Devices that use proprietary refills. http://www.zdnet.com/article/jailbreaking-your-coffee-machine-the-idiocy-of-things


  1. 1 credit onlineonline lenders Trackback on October 16, 2017 at 9:16 pm

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About & Contact

I'm Mark Cathcart, formally a Senior Distinguished Engineer, in Dells Software Group; before that Director of Systems Engineering in the Enterprise Solutions Group at Dell. Prior to that, I was IBM Distinguished Engineer and member of the IBM Academy of Technology. I'm an information technology optimist.


I was a member of the Linux Foundation Core Infrastructure Initiative Steering committee. Read more about it here.

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