Who owns our hardware? Is technology changing the nature of ownership?

Tesla has stepped in to help electric car owners in hurricane-devastated Florida by removing the artificial limitation on how far its cheaper cars can go without recharging. Laudable certainly; but it raises an interesting question about what we actually own when we buy something these days.

In times gone by you’d buy a car and then it was all up to you how you fiddled about with it. But that was in a time when fiddling meant mechanical changes that were possible for someone with a little training. Now we’re talking sealed systems controlled by software which we don’t actually own.

This doesn’t just apply to Tesla cars of course. Our phones are at the mercy of Apple or Google’s update cycles. My remote-controlled skylights have built-in firmware I can’t touch. Even washing machines now come with embedded firmware.

Our relationship with the things we ‘own’ is changing dramatically. We might own the hardware, although that is sometimes questionable when you’re buying a phone on an installment plan, but we certainly don’t own or even control the software that makes it more than a bunch of battery-driven electronic components. And that leaves us vulnerable.

No one would argue that I own my nine-year-old iPhone. But also there’s little surprise that Apple has turned it into little more than a brick as successive operating system updates have left it unable to function. That expensive bit of hardware was always at the mercy of those controlling the software – and that mercy did not stretch very far.

The spread of the Internet of Things makes this even more of a pointed issue. My recently smart-lighted home will only function as long as Phillips supports the current version of Hue. My skylights will literally stop functioning if Velux ceases software support. I am surrounded by things that function at the whim of big companies.

Perhaps that indicates that in the future the very nature of ownership will shift. If we can’t control the device or thing, then maybe there’s no point in owning it. Perhaps we’ll just rent or licence both hardware and software.

And there’s another issue. Imagine we rent or licence both hardware and software for not just our phones, but for our cars our lights, our fridges. Imagine the power that puts in the hands of Apple or Google or Samsung. I’m not sure if I find that disturbing as such, but I certainly find it worth contemplating.

Image: XKCD.

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