Opinion: What is the future of upgrades?

By Julio Franco ยท 9 replies
Sep 19, 2017
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  1. One of the most appealing aspects of many tech-based products is their ability to be improved after they’ve been purchased. Whether it’s adding new features, making existing functions work better, or even just fixing the inevitable bugs or other glitches that often occur in today’s advanced digital devices, the idea of upgrades is generally very appealing.

    With some tech-based products, you can add new hardware—such as plugging a new graphics card into a desktop PC—to update a device. Most upgrades, however, are software-based. Given the software-centric nature of everything from modern cars to smart speakers to, of course, smartphones and other common computing devices, this is by far the most common type of enhancement that our digital gadgets receive.

    The range of software upgrades made for devices varies tremendously—from very subtle tweaks that are essentially invisible to most users, through dramatic feature enhancements that enable capabilities that weren’t there before the upgrade. In most cases, however, you don’t see entire new hardware functions being made available through software upgrades. I’m starting to wonder, however, if that concept is going to change.

    The event that triggered my thought process was Tesla’s recent decision to temporarily enhance the battery capacity, and therefore driving range, of their Tesla vehicles for owners in Florida who were trying to escape the impact of the recent Hurricane Irma. Now, Tesla has offered software-based hardware upgrades—not only to increase driving range but to turn on their autonomous driving features—for several years.

    Nevertheless, it’s not widely known that several differently priced models of Tesla’s cars are identical from a hardware perspective, but differ only in the software loaded into the car. Want the S75 or the S60? There’s an $8,500 price and 41-mile range difference between the two, but the only actual change is nothing more than a software enablement of batteries that exist in both models. Similarly, the company’s AutoPilot feature is $2,500 on a new car, but can be enabled via an over-the-air software update on most other Tesla cars for $3,000 after the purchase.

    In the case of the Florida customers, Tesla was clearly trying to do a good thing (though I’m sure many were frustrated that the feature was remotely taken away almost as quickly as it had been remotely enabled), but the practice of software-based hardware upgrades certainly raises some questions. On the one hand, it’s arguably nice to have the ability to “add” these hardware features after the fact (even with the post-purchase $500 fee above what it would have cost “built-in” to a new car), but there is something that doesn’t seem right about intentionally disabling capabilities that are already there.

    Clearly, Tesla’s policies haven’t exactly held back enthusiasm for many of their cars, but I do wonder if we’re going to start seeing other companies take a similar approach on less expensive devices as a new way to drive profits.

    In the semiconductor industry, the process of “binning”—in which chips of the same design are separated into different “bins” based on their performance and thermal characteristics, and then marketed as having different minimum performance requirements—has been going on for decades. In the case of chips, however, there isn’t a way to upgrade them—except perhaps with overclocking, where you try to run a chip faster than what its minimum stated frequency is—and there’s no guarantee it will work. The nature of the semiconductor manufacturing process simply creates these different thermal and frequency ranges, and vendors have intelligently figured out a way to create different models based on the variations that occur.

    The benefits of building one hardware platform and then differentiating solely based on software can make economic sense for products that are made in very large quantities.

    In other product categories, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see more of these software-based hardware upgrades. The benefits of building one hardware platform and then differentiating solely based on software can make economic sense for products that are made in very large quantities. The ability to source identical parts and develop manufacturing processes around a single design can translate into savings for some vendors, even if the component costs are a bit higher than they might otherwise be with a variety of different configurations or designs.

    The truth is, it is notoriously challenging for tech hardware businesses to make much money. With few exceptions, the profit margin percentages for tech hardware is in the low single digits, and many companies actually lose money on hardware sales. Most hope to make it up via accessories or other services. As a result, there’s more willingness to experiment with business models, particularly as we see the lifespans for different generations of products continue to shrink.

    Ironically, though, after years of charging for software upgrades, we’ve seen most companies start to offer their software upgrades for free. As a result, I think there’s more reticence for consumers and other end users to pay for traditional software-only upgrades. In the case of these software-enabled hardware upgrades, however, we could start to see the pendulum swing back the other way as virtually all of these upgrades have a price associated with them. In the case of Tesla cars, in fact, it’s a very large cost. Some have argued that this is because Tesla sees itself as more of a software company than a hardware one, but I think that’s a difficult concept for many to accept. Plus, for many traditional hardware companies who may want to try this model, the positioning could be even more difficult.

    Despite these concerns, I have a feeling that the software-based hardware upgrade is an approach we’re going to see a number of companies try variations on for several years to come. There’s no question that it will continue to come with a reasonable share of controversies (and risks—if the software upgrades become publicly available via frustrated hackers), but I think it’s something we’re going to have to get used to—like it or not.

    Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm. You can follow him on Twitter . This article was originally published on Tech.pinions.

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  2. Skidmarksdeluxe

    Skidmarksdeluxe TS Evangelist Posts: 8,647   +3,279

    The reason for any business to exist, no matter how big or how small it is, is to make profit otherwise it's totally pointless. It's a dog eat dog market out there and all companies, no matter how reputable they are, will all stoop to the lowest levels in their quest for profit. The tricks themselves have been around since mankind stopped it's early hunting and gathering beginnings and started living as a society. They've just been refined over time.
    Reehahs likes this.
  3. Theinsanegamer

    Theinsanegamer TS Evangelist Posts: 1,122   +1,144

    My opinion: Any car I buy will not use any services (ie GPS) that need updated. I have my phone for that.

    the electronics only need to be bluetooth, which is backwards compatible, radio, and AC.

    If I buy a car with more connected systems, I'll refuse to connect it to any wifi. And if it has LTE, I'll tear that out. I dont need auto makers screwing around with my car when they cant get basic security right.

    OTOH, in the wonderful world of hacks, any software features are going to be pretty easy to get at for anyone computer savvy (see android auto in 15 and earlier mazdas).
    Last edited: Sep 19, 2017
  4. OutlawCecil

    OutlawCecil TS Guru Posts: 406   +250

    One extremely annoying trend I see lately that will likely keep growing is selling a product with permanent "give-us-more-money" software built in that you can't get rid of. I'm talking smart TVs,Roku and similar boxes, smartphones, computers (thanks to Win10 for locking some "apps" to prevent removal), and yes very likely cars are next. If I buy something, it's MINE and I should have full power to remove crapware I don't intend to use. I hate seeing things listed that I don't want to buy that can't be removed.
  5. noel24

    noel24 TS Evangelist Posts: 397   +255

    They're shooting their foot. When it become a standard to differentiate enabled featurers based on someones wallet, they'll create a market for hackers enabling the features, create a laws for targeting customers enabling hidden features for fracture of the price. The CPU/GPU comparison will work here, with people complaing about Intel/nVidia/insert-Your-choice-of-manufacturer-here tricks disabling obvious features for money. ***** I would say. Make it plain and simple. You pay for quality You get. Otherwise, prepare to fight Your consumers for trying to get as much as posssible for their money and reigning legal terror on some, sometimes clueless people who were just told by a car mechanic that they can get more out of their purchase for free.
  6. GreenNova343

    GreenNova343 TS Maniac Posts: 271   +164

    I can understand the issue with "smart" TVs (although, to be fair, you can probably find models with few or no built-in apps...& from my experience, if you never use the apps or never even enable the Wi-Fi connection there's little to no effect on your daily viewing anyway), & I can maybe see the issue with Windows 10 apps (although, again, I hardly ever use the Windows App store, & I'm always diligent about limiting what apps/programs run automatically on my PC, so I've not really found myself having to do more work to deal with this).

    Not sure about the issue with smartphones that you mentioned. I have little to no trouble removing apps that I don't want to use, & between iTunes on my PC & the App Store remembering apps that have been removed from my phone I can always restore an app that I deleted by mistake. Truth be told, while there are a bunch of those apps installed by default with iOS that I don't use, the amount of storage space they use is for the most part pretty negligible. But, I can see how that could still be annoying to someone.

    But Roku? Sorry, I just really don't get it. Aside from that new Roku channel they're adding (which is free), there are no channels on the Roku that can't be deleted if you don't want them. It's just a box that connects to their main server to allow you to pick the channels that you choose to install (or delete, if you want). There's no adware, no bloatware, no extra frills preloaded; all paid content (&, except for their new Roku movie channel, all free content), is 100% deletable.
  7. erickmendes

    erickmendes TS Evangelist Posts: 387   +154

    I don't feel good about that... When we talk about a software only product, I could see some sense, or perhaps swallow it better, even knowing that the code is the same, just the features is disabled. But doing it to hardware seems almost criminal. Sure it's not... But common, the hardware capability needed is present, and you paid for this hardware, not as much as a fully enabled one but paid.
  8. DynamoNED

    DynamoNED TS Member Posts: 19   +7

    Anyone remember Intel dabbling with software unlocking hardware with the Pentium G6951? Ars Technica link for reference: https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2010/09/intels-upgradable-processor-good-sense-or-utter-catastrophe/

    Basically, Intel's Pentium G6951 was a 2.8GHz dual-core CPU with 3MB cache based on the Clarkdale architecture that sold for about $90 in 2010. However, through Intel's Upgrade Service, you could pay $50 to unlock HyperThreading and an extra 1MB of cache, essentially turning it into a slightly downclocked Core i3-530. I remember there was some decent push-back at the time. Interesting to see this idea coming back around again.
  9. OutlawCecil

    OutlawCecil TS Guru Posts: 406   +250

    My point here was mostly the fact that I don't want to have to scroll through any list of 10 services to get to the 1 or 2 that I utilize. This thought covers my whole list of devices I mentioned. Yes, any respectable brand of smart TV will come with "super convenient" ways to watch stuff on Netflix or similar services. But if you don't use Netflix, you are forced to see it every time you open the menu on your TV.

    iOS has their own prebuilt apps for everything, is overpriced, and designed for non-power users so not really referring to anything there with my concerns. Android is getting better at allowing you to at least disable apps you don't use but again, when you see "108 apps installed" it makes you wonder what the he11 is on your phone. I'd rather only have the apps I use, disabled or not.

    As for Windows10, they've made it a bear to remove prebuilt apps and even then, only some can be removed. It's absolutely ridiculous to push "Candy Crush Soda Saga" to every computer including Pro versions of Windows designed for businesses! There's a long list of games that get pushed that I have to remove from peoples machines on a daily basis but even after pulling up powershell to remove all the crap, some remain and have no uninstall option or any way to remove them. Cortana is listed even if you disable her. Mixed Reality Portal, Connect...etc are all apps that have no option to uninstall, disable, or even hide.

    Lastly, maybe I've only seen older Roku devices but just like smart TVs, I've always seen a selection of services you can access. Now I don't know about you but I usually subscribe to one service and would use the Roku to access it. So everytime I want to watch my one service, I'd simply scroll past, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, Sling, HBO Now, Crackle, Showtime... the list goes on. If I don't use those services, I gotta have a way to get them off my screen.
  10. Joe Blow

    Joe Blow TS Addict Posts: 216   +74

    The only thing a tech refresh brings is under warranty or license hardware or software. Other than that, it's just more junk made with ever cheaper components and mysterious problems for manufacturers to try to get out of fixing.

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