The Firmware of Everyday Things

(with apologies to Donald Norman, for paraphrasing his excellent book title)

As an IT person, I’m pretty used to the idea that I need to update software now and again. Sometimes, it’s to make it more secure (closing down vulnerabilities that afflict any software exposed to the outside world), fixing bugs (which affect all software, period) or adding new features and functionality (which maybe the designers of the software didn’t think of before, or which they just didn’t have time to implement). Maybe the update is the form of a patch, maybe it’s a whole new version that I will choose to buy.

As the reach of software gets more and more pervasive, it’s interesting to note the difference between what people will do in an IT world, and what they expect from the rest of the world around them.

Now, I spent a good chunk of the last weekend updating the firmware in my car, specifically the software which controls the entertainment systems, the Sat-Nav etc – in my case, it’s Audi’s excellent MMI system, but many other manufacturers are moving to some kind of multi-modal, software-based control mechanism for the myriad systems in the car.

BMW “popularised” such a system with it’s iDrive control technology, which seemingly took several revisions to be usable by any car reviewer, even though it made perfect sense to me.

Getting software upgrades for these things is far from easy: arguably, nor should it be. What business do ordinary consumers have in getting hold of low-cost or free updates, which they apply themselves, to make their ownership experience better?

As it happens, I heard about a series of updates which would make the navigation system built in to my car quite a bit better – and on asking, my dealer was more than happy to supply the software update for me and install it, for only £100+VAT to cover the labour involved.

I managed to find far more than I ever dreamt I needed to know, through various online forums – particularly – that opened up a whole series of secret key-press combinations to bring up hidden menus, the part numbers of the CDs I’d need to order from the dealer (at about £1.50 each), and the procedures to upgrade the whole thing myself.

Here’s an example of just one such hidden menu…

So many other devices which previously would have been considered an appliance, now have the capability to be upgraded if only the suppliers embrace the idea and maybe even make it easy. Examples abound – the Philips Pronto universal remote control has spawned a huge user community to modifying the way it works, precisely because Philips made the software available to do so easily, and regularly updates the device’s capability based on user feedback.

I upgrade my mobile phone with beta software regularly, my Zune music player got a whole new look and feel courtesy of some free software and firmware upgrades. There are secret menus on my TV that show the software version, the satellite receiver downloads firmware updates automatically (even though sometimes it manages to crash when it tries to install them). Even the DVD drive that I fitted to my home PC has a little bit of software that checks online for updates to its firmware, and the PC into which I fitted it was having all sorts of trouble with its memory until I applied a BIOS update from the manufacturer.

Much of this stuff is very much beyond the ken of the man on the Clapham Omnibus, but as IT hardware awareness spreads out to the general public in time, maybe it’s not going to be too far in the future when people routinely expect improvements to come to any piece of electronic equipment through periodic updates.

Of course, it can all go horribly wrong – twice on Saturday, I got myself into a situation with the car where none of the MMI system worked, meaning I had no radio, no navigation, no GUI to any of the other systems like parking sensors or suspension settings etc… and it took a good deal of fuse-pulling and rebooting to get it all working again.

Maybe it’s better to just rely on someone to do it all for you …

Bird’s Eye view on Live maps – how cool is that?

The Windows Live search team did a pretty major update (a few months ago) to a number of elements of the search engine at, but one of the nicest is the maps integration. Type in a postcode, a place or business name and click on Maps and you’ll hopefully go straight there…


As the Virtual Earth technology behind the Live Maps site improves, and as the quality of the data behind it gets better too, I’ve noticed quite a few sites shift to using it, sometime away from other mapping services like Google Maps or Multimap (which Microsoft recently acquired, so that may have something to do with it).

Whilst shooting the breeze on the web the other day, I thought I’d check out Rightmove to nose through a list of property that’s for sale near my home (having found Rightmove and PropertyFinder, Google Earth and Virtual Earth so valuable when I was house-hunting a couple of years ago). Rightmove now has a service called "AboutMyPlace" which is shown in response to searches of an area, but also pinpointing the exact location of specific property that’s for sale.

Anyway, I found a house not far from mine which was for sale; on the AboutMyPlace site, I was quite impressed to see their use of Virtual Earth, then saw that Bird’s Eye view was available…


View from AboutMyPlace, showing the Virtual Earth UI

I hadn’t realised that Bird’s Eye view had been improved so much, or that its reach had been so expanded – previously, it was really just major cities and the likes which got it, but during last summer, it’s clear that planes have been criss-crossing the UK and taking some really good quality pictures from multiple angles (so you can rotate the view)…

Now I can see my own house (and all of the neighbours’ too!) in a while new way – it’s  amazing, and can drain hours out of your day if you’re not careful.

Here’s Microsoft’s TVP just as one example (try it for yourself by searching for RG6 1WG and clicking on Bird’s Eye view)


Now isn’t that good?

I need some Flo Control – or Arnie Control, more like

Regulars may remember the trouble my PC was having with Arnie the cat well I could use some more technology in and around the house to solve another little problem.

Arnie & his sister have now got quite big – they’re just over a year old, so fully-functional adult cats (well, not entirely fully functional, if you know what I mean), with a keen sense of how to catch, kill and sometimes eat quite a bit of the local rodent population (which given that we live in the country, is quite high).

Now it’s not much fun catching live mice that have been hauled in through the cat flap, it’s not a great deal better picking up the (sometimes partially consumed) cadavers of others, and I’m sure it’s not exactly a great time for the poor little meeces either.

Today, we spent some time dragging the fridge out to locate where the stink was coming from – and eventually located a long-dead mouse underneath. Less than an hour later, whilst we were sitting in the kitchen having lunch, Arnie came steaming through the flap with his latest victim in his gob – prompting stern and immediate attention, in slamming doors, shooing him back outside again etc.

So, a solution must be found.

A few years ago, I came across an intriguing project called Flo Control, where someone had rigged up a PC to the cat flap and performed facial recognition on the cat that was trying to come into the house – in this case, a cat called Flo. If Flo was alone, the flap would open, but if she was carrying anything in her mouth, it would stay resolutely shut.

It seems the guys behind Flo Control think that processor technology has come on so much in recent times, that it will be possible to release a box that fits to the door, without needing the PC attached.

The current solution looks pretty cumbersome – not just with the PC attached, but the box on the other side of the door.  It essentially takes a snapshot of the silhouette of whatever sticks it head towards the flap, and then uses shape recognition technology to decide whether to open the door or not…

All clear, Flo Not so fast, buster…

I Want one of those

This kind of idea could even be a winner for the likes of Dragons’ Den – I’d be quite happy (as a consumer) to pay ~£100 for something like this, and since there are reckoned to be more than 6 million cat owning households in the UK, there’s clearly an opportunity in this country alone. Magnetic flaps which only allow a cat wearing a specific collar to come in & out cost about £40, so it’s not outrageous to think people would spend a good bit more.

A basic device would have a mini-USB port that could take a laptop controlling it (to check on settings etc), would have a rechargeable battery and a simple training mechanism where the cat is plonked on the other side, and (like those fingerprint recognition devices) a few attempts of cat coming in are used to let the device’s cheapo camera figure out what “normal” looks like.

Deluxe editions might be inobtrusively mains-powered, offering the delight of being able WiFi attached, so you could help train it, provide a log of when the cat came in & out (and even which cat it was, if you have a collection) etc etc. Even get alerted on your PC if the cat’s trying to come in but the flap’s not sure if he is solo or accompanied…

Added finesse could even be automatic timing control – eg. cats can’t leave the flap after 9pm but if they’re still outside, then can come in until 11pm after which it closes for the night…

Is this a great example of a techy toy, or something that only a techie could dream up but which could find a following in the general populace? Or another “seems like a good idea at the time” gadget that would gather dust in one of those catalogues full of things you didn’t know you needed, that fall out of the Sunday papers..?

Happy New Year!