"Firmware update" sounds like something you'd want. Something solid, yet fresh and new. But lately deciding to update is getting more complicated. The newest firmware is no longer just a nice downloadable present from a benevolent electronics overlord; on many devices, it has been buggy or downright dangerous to install. Manufacturers like Apple, Nintendo and Sony are increasingly releasing firmware that disables functionality for business reasons—or that just make products worse by being halfbaked. Here is a rundown of firmware updates that weren't exactly beloved by users.
Sony PSP: A healthy and thriving homebrew community had sprung up around Sony's PSP, with alternate, user-made firmware adding new functionality like a wider range of supported media codecs and the ability to share music. Oh, and, well, there was also that little issue of mass piracy of games. Sony issued a number of firmware upgrades—a whopping six each in 2006 and 2007—designed to curb the little thieves, but which had the unfortunate side effect of discouraging the more creative, less piratical wing of the homebrew community. Sony used the "carrot and stick" method, enticing users with marginal new functions when the real purpose of the upgrade was to stop the homebrewers. This led to users actually trying to downgrade, or move back to an earlier firmware. Sony in turn tried to make it harder to downgrade, escalating the squabble into a war with its own customers.
Degree of Evilness: High. This is a deliberate attempt to harsh PSP users' buzz.
Sony PlayStation 3: The PS3's anticipated firmware 2.40, on the other hand, was a simple disaster. The famously expensive console was due to receive a major update, adding the flashy XMB interface to the mix. Unfortunately, while the update did work for some, it bricked a lot of PS3s, producing some very upset gamers. Sony pulled the update and re-released it, repaired, as 2.41, but Sony's mucked-up firmware was the Story of the Day. Bad press, ill will and useless hulking black machines. Not a great moment for Sony.
Degree of Evilness: Low. Simple incompetence from a corporation that should know better.
Apple iPod: Back in 2004, Real cracked Apple's FairPlay code in order to allow music purchased from Rhapsody to be played on iPods. When Apple released an update blocking Rhapsody users, Real cracked it again. Apple released another block update, and so on until Real ran out of steam. We doubt there was much demand for the service at the time, but Apple's clampdown was shameless. Hell, Apple could have played Real compatibility as yet another reason to buy an iPod.
Degree of Evilness: Medium-High. In the end, it was more bratty than evil.
Apple iPhone/iPod touch: When the first iPhone/iPod touch software was jailbroken, a few updates came out under the guise of bug fixing that just happened to make unauthorised use a lot more difficult. This time around, with the 2.0 release, the setbacks were more accidental than deliberate. The new 2.0 firmware may have creaked open the floodgates for third-party applications, but it also resulted in a lot of instability. Thanks to the update, iPhones have crashed at a rate never seen before (well, outside of my last couple Windows machines, that is), the keyboard gained a frustrating lag, "backing up" takes almost as long as the Iraq occupation (zing!), and, in a total affront to common sense, THERE IS STILL NO COPY-PASTE.
Degree of Evilness: Middle. A mix of self-preservation and circumstance, with some brazen stubbornness from His Steveness thrown in.
Nintendo Wii: In Nintendo's Photo Channel 1.1 firmware update, the game maker quietly removed support for MP3 playback in their Wii console. They replaced it with support for the iPod-friendly AAC codec, a far-too-obvious hint at what we all suspected: Nintendo has been taken over by the White Devil. How else do we explain the move from that GameCube controller that was clearly designed for some moon octopus to a remote control so simple I can operate it with my genitals? What about the new and incredibly racist all-white colour scheme, the minimalist design aesthetic, and the cavalier and haughty attitude toward competition? Readers, watch out, or Jobs will get you ne-AAAACK!
Degree of Evilness: Nintendo can do no wrong. (And Steve Jobs is perfect.)
Firmware updates that leave you worse off than you were before are a kick in the crotch. But what about the slow, increasingly painful wedgie of unfulfilled promises? Electronics companies often promise to deliver features in firmware updates that, for whatever reason, aren't included at the time of purchase. In the best of cases, this is frustrating: Samsung's P2, for instance, promised Bluetooth compatibility, games, skins and more upon release, but was only achieved, finally, months later. But what if, as in Samsung's Blu-Ray/HD DVD combo player, the product line dies before the promised features (Blu-Ray 2.0 compatibility) can be updated? Firmware updates should be a surprise, a freshly-wrapped hand-me-down present that makes your crappy old gadget seem somehow new again, not a licence to shove an unfinished product out the door.
This is just a short list of troubling firmware updates—if you have some firmware horror stories of your own to share, be our guest. And for all of you who immediately click "YES PLEASE!" to all auto-updaters, take heed, and maybe wait 24 hours before doing the upgrade.