I've never felt less in control of my own hardware


Once upon a time I bought a car. I drove it straight out of the dealership and parked it on my driveway. This is a thought experiment, as youth in the UK can't afford neither a car nor a driveway and I can't drive, but bear with me.

I bought a car and I drove it around for a few months or so and life was great. It did everything I wanted it to do, it never stalled and never broke down. One day, I got an e-mail from the dealership saying that they'd need to update my car. Sure, I thought, and drove there to get it "updated". They didn't let me look at what they were doing with the car, saying that they were performing some simple maintenance. Finally, I got my car back, without seeing any visible changes, and drove it back home.

This happened a few more times over the next several months. I'd get an e-mail from the dealer, drive the car back to them, have a cup of coffee or three while they were working, and then get the car back. Sometimes I'd get it back damaged somehow, with a massive dent on the side, and the dealership staff would just shrug and say that those were the manufacturer's instructions. Then a few days later, I'd get summoned again and after another update cycle the dent would be gone.

At some point, I stopped bothering and after a few missed calls from the dealership my car stopped working completely. I phoned the dealership again and sure, they said that the car wouldn't work until another update. Great. I had the car towed to the dealership and drove back without any issues.

One night I got woken up by a weird noise outside my house. I looked out the window and saw that some people in dark overalls were around my car, doing something to it. I ran out, threatening to call the police. They laughed and produced IDs from the dealership, telling me that since people were frustrated with having to update their cars so often, they'd do it for them in order to bother them less.

I sighed and went back to sleep. This continued for quite some time, with the mechanics working on my car every week or so. I'd invite them for tea and they would refuse, quoting terms of service and all that sort of thing.

One day I woke up to a car covered in ads that seemed to be related to what I was browsing last night. There wasn't anything controversial, thankfully, but it was still a bit unsettling. The dealership support staff said it was to offer me products relevant to my interests. I asked if I could take them down and got told that it was a part of the whole offering and the vehicle wouldn't work without them. So I had to drive to work surrounded by more pictures of the Trivago woman that I was comfortable with.

After a year or so, the manufacturer had innovated some more. When I got into the car and turned the ignition key, a bunch of mechanics appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and picked the car up, ready to drag it as per my instructions. Turns out, the night before they had removed the engine and all the useful parts from the vehicle, turning it into a "thin client". It was supposed to make sure that when there was an issue with the car, they could debug it centrally and not bother all their customers.

Finally, one morning I got into the car and nothing happened. Turns out, the manufacturer was acquired by a larger company last night and their service got shut down. I sat at the wheel, dreading being late for work again, and suddenly woke up.

Meanwhile in the real world

Once upon a time I opened a new tab in Firefox on my Android phone to find out that besides a list of my most visited pages to choose from, there also was a list of things "suggested by Pocket". What the hell was Pocket, why was it suggesting me things and, more importantly, how the hell did it get into my Firefox?

I remember when pushing code to the user's device was a big deal. You'd go to the vendor's website, download an executable, launch it, go through an InstallShield (or a NullSoft) install wizard if you were lucky and only then you would get to enjoy the new software. You'd go through the changelogs and get excited about the bugfixes or new features. And if you weren't excited, you wouldn't install the new version at all.

I remember when I went through my Linux phase and was really loving package managers. It was a breath of fresh air back then, a single apt-get upgrade updating all my software at once. And then Android and Apple smartphones came around and they had exactly the same idea of a centralized software repository. How cool was that?

I'm not sure when mobile devices started installing updates by default. I think around 2014 my Android phone would still meekly ask to update all apps and that was an opportunity for me to reestablish my power over my device and go through all the things I wasn't using anymore and delete them. In 2016, when I got a new phone, the default setting changed and I would just wake up to my device stating, "Tinder has been updated. Deal with it".

And it's been the case on the desktop too. I realised that Firefox and Chrome hadn't been pestering me about updates for quite a while now and, sure, they've been updating themselves. I like Mr Robot, but I like it in my media player, not in my browser.

It's not even about automatic updates. I could disable them, sure, but I would quickly fall behind the curve, with services that I'm accessing stopping supporting my client software. In fact, it's not even about browsers. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to use Skype 4 (the last decent version), that is, if I could find where to download it. As another example, I recently launched OpenIV, a GTA modding tool, at which point it told me "There's a new version available. I won't start until you update". Uuh, excuse me? Sure, I could find a way around this, but still, it's not pleasant being told that what's essentially a glorified WinRAR that was fine the night before can't run without me updating it.

(as an aside, WinRAR now seems to be monetized by having ads on its "please buy WinRAR" dialog window.)

If I go to a Web page, gone are the days of the server sending me some HTML and my browser rendering it the way I wanted. No, now the browser gets told "here's some JavaScript, go run it. Oh, here's a CDN, go download some JavaScript from there and run it, too. Oh, here a DoubleClick ad server, go get some pictures that look like Download buttons from over there and put them over here. Also, here's the CSRF token. If you don't quote at it at me the next time, I'll tell you to go away. Oh yeah, also set this cookie. Oh, and append this hexadecimal string to the URL so that we can track who shared this link and where. The HTML? Here's your HTML. But the JavaScript is supposed to change the DOM around, so go run it. It changes your scrolling behaviour, too, so you get a cool parallax effect as you move around the page. You'll love it."

As a developer, I love web applications. If a customer is experiencing an issue, I don't need to get them to send me logs or establish which version of the software they're running. I just go to my own server logs, see what request they're making and now I am able to reproduce the issue in my own environment. And with updates now getting pushed out to users' devices automatically, there are fewer and fewer support issues which can be resolved by saying "update to the newest version" and instead I can spend time on better pursuits. Finally, I don't need to battle with WinAPI or Qt or Swing or any other GUI framework: given enough CSS and a frontend JavaScript framework du jour, things can look roughly the same on all devices.

However, that leaves users at the mercy of the vendor. What used to be code running on their own hardware is now code running on the vendor's hardware or code that the vendor tells their hardware to run. So when they end up in a place with no Internet connection or the vendor goes out of business, the service won't work at all instead of working poorly.

By the way, here's an idea on how to come up with new business ideas. Look at the most popular Google services and have a quick think about how you would write a replacement for them. When they inevitably get sunsetted, do so and reap kudos. For example, I'm currently writing a browser addon that replaces the "View Image" button from Google Image search results.

In fact, it's not just an issue with applications. Once upon a time in early 2017, I came home from work to find my laptop, that had been on standby, decided to turn itself on and install a Windows 10 update. The way I found that out was because the login screen had changed and it was using a different time format. And then things became even weirder as I realised that all the shortcuts on my desktop and in the Start Menu were missing. In fact, it was almost as if someone broke into my house and reimaged my whole hard drive. Strangely enough, all the software and the data was still there, tucked away in C:\Program Files and its friends, it's just that Windows wasn't aware of it. Thankfully, running a System Restore worked and the next update didn't have these problems, but since then I stopped allowing automatic updates. Except there's no way I can figure out what a given update does anyway.


I'm really scared of my phone right now. Here it is, lying by my side, and I've no idea what's going on in its mind and what sort of information it's transferring and to where. When I was a kid and got gifted my father's old Nokia 6600, I was excited about having a fully fledged computer in my pocket, something with a real multitasking operating system that I could easily write software for. Now, I'm no longer so sure.