Are Closed Computing Devices Like Modern Cars?

Car analogies are quite popular on internet discussion forums, and ours is no exception. The problem with these analogies, however, is that they are usually quite flimsy, and a recent popular one is no exception. A number of people are now arguing that computer makers’ move towards closed platforms (Apple, Sony, and so on) is akin to people no longer being able to service cars on their own. This analogy, which looks sound on a superficial level, breaks down when you spend more than five minutes contemplating it.

As you are no doubt aware of, several computer manufacturers are trying to lock users out of their own devices. Apple’s iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad are popular examples, but Sony’s recent dealings with the Linux option on the PlayStation 3 is probably an even better example. These policies are accompanied by terms stating that opening up the device will void its warranty.

A popular analogy has emerged – namely, that of cars decades ago, and cars today. It used to be the case that cars were relatively simple. You could service them yourself, and you were not dependent on trained professionals. Over the past few decades, this has changed; more and more electronics were added to not just peripheral components like windows, but also to the actual engines, which got covered behind plastic plates.

Over time, this has made it pretty much impossible for most people to self-service their cars beyond changing the oil and tires or filing up the wiper fluid reservoir. Upon first glance, it indeed seems as if these two development paths can be aligned. However, there are two crucial differences between them that are often overlooked. The fist one is a case of semantics, but the second one certainly isn’t.

The first thing that doesn’t make any sense is that computers have not changed all that much the past 20 years, meaning the computer world isn’t ‘becoming more like the car world’ at all. Your average computer still consists of the same basic set of components: motherboard, processor, RAM sticks, power supply, storage drives, expansion cards. This was true 20 years ago, and it is (mostly) true today. Of course, there are computers today with, for instance, soldered-on memory or without expansion slots (laptops, for instance) – but you had those two decades ago as well. Little seems to have changed here.

On top of that, there have always been computing devices that could not be serviced by most people. Phones were impossible to service ten years ago, and they still are today; everything is usually contained on a single tiny circuit board, and unless you have specialised tools, it’s pretty much impossible to do anything with them. This is true today, and this was true 20 years ago. Such devices have been with us for a long time.

However, that’s more or less semantics. You could argue that the non-serviceable (or harder-to-service) devices are becoming more popular, and you’d certainly have a point; smartphones and laptops have become very popular, with laptops even outselling desktops. Laptops are much harder to service than desktops, so while the computer world itself isn’t making it harder per device category to service them, the overall market does seem to move towards these types of devices.

Let’s get the second point, the point that actually matters.

Servicing and modifying cars

Cars have indeed become harder to service. You can see the difference quite clearly when you compare the engine in a 1925 Ford Model T to that of a modern Ford Focus (2010).

The engine of a Ford Model T, 1925. The engine of a Ford Focus, 2010.

This is true across the board; cars are now controlled by all matter of electronic chips that monitor every aspect of the engine, brakes, and just about everything else. This has made it infinitely harder to service your car by yourself, forcing many people to have their cars serviced by professionals.

However, and this is the crucial difference between the automotive and computing world: car companies are not actively trying to prevent you from modifying your car, nor are they trying to make it a felony to modify your car. Two facts illustrate this.

First, even though I drive a Ford, my car is not serviced by a Ford mechanic. There are several car service shops in my small home town that handle all manner of cars – no matter the make, type, or age. You can buy a brand new car, flip the official dealer the bird, and shop around for a much cheaper company to help you service the car.

Due to EU law, these independent companies have access to the same types of training and information that authorised dealers have access to. The result of this is that you, as a customer, have the freedom to choose a car service that befits you – maybe the official dealer is too far away from home, maybe he’s too expensive, maybe you prefer to keep things local. Of course, you’re likely to lose your official warranty – but that’s your choice. It makes the most sense, therefore, to switch to such a cheaper company after your warranty runs out.

In the world of computing, this is impossible. If your iPad fails, you can only go to Apple for service. If your PlayStation 3 fails, you can only go to Sony for service. If they charge ten million dollars for fixing something, you have to either put up or shut up. Contrary to the automotive world, there are no laws that grant third parties access to the type of training and information required.

Imagine a computing and technology world where such laws did exist. Right now, if your device breaks down after warranty (which it inevitably will), you are pretty much forced to buy a new one, since the manufacturer’s repair costs are almost always (possibly intentionally) prohibitive. On top of that, it will more often than not require you to send your device to the other side of the country, and be without it for weeks on end.

Imagine if you could just walk into your local electronics store, where they have mechanics working with access to the same training and information as manufacturers’ own people. It would result in healthy competition that currently does not exist. It would bring down repair costs considerably, it would increase the longevity of devices, which would in turn decrease the TOC of the device even further.

The second fact that illustrates that car companies are not like computer companies is that they do not prevent you from modifying or upgrading your car. There is an incredibly large and healthy market for after-market car parts, which you can use to make your car your own (or make them really ugly, if you wish). The internet is filled to the brim with instructions on how to modify your car to your liking.

Even modifying modern engines is everything but frowned upon. There are hundreds if not thousands of “tuners” out there that modify engines or mess with the car’s software just to get the most performance out of it. Some tuners even go as far as to replace entire engines or braking systems. This is perfectly normal, and in fact, many of these companies have garnered a lot of fame and prestige due to their technical expertise.

And yes, even coach builders still exist.

Many people today think that AMG is nothing more than a badge given to the very top performing Mercedes cars. Reality is different; AMG was a company separate from Mercedes that built custom engines and specialised in modifying Mercedes cars. In 1990, AMG entered into a special cooperation with Mercedes, and overtime, became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mercedes.

The history or Fiat’s racing department, Abarth, is similar. Abarth, founded in 1949, built cars of their own, mostly in cooperation with other car makers (Porsche, Simca, Fiat), but specialised mostly in heavily modifying Fiats. In 1971, they were bought by Fiat, and now they are the Italian car maker’s racing department, similar to AMG’s status at Mercedes.

This illustrates that if you do a really good job of modifying cars, improving their performance, you might eventually end up being bought by those whose cars you modify. This means that there is a very healthy market.

Why are hardware and software special?

The difference between the automotive and computing world couldn’t be more obvious. While cars have indeed become more difficult to service, car companies are not at all trying to actively prevent you from doing so. You can have your services wherever you want without breaking the law (in fact, laws exist specifically to promote it!), and even upgrading and modifying your car is a perfectly normal practice that can lead to considerable success and prestige.

So no, the original analogy does not stand. Computing devices are not becoming more like cars; quite the contrary, actually. Where the automotive world is relatively open and you, as a consumer, have a lot of freedom to choose (in other words, you actually own your car), this is not the case in many modern computing devices.

I’d love to see the computing world adopt the automotive model – give specialists access, by law, to the same type of training and information that manufacturers give to their own people, and it would kick-start some much-needed competition that currently simply doesn’t exist. Consumers would be able to have their devices repaired easier and cheaper, giving them much longer life spans. It would also be good for local economies since repair shops would spring up all over the place – I’m not just talking about iPads or PlayStations, but also televisions, HiFi sets, whatever.

Many people have this crazy idea that we should treat computer hardware and software differently from any other product, that they’re somehow special. We allow hardware and software companies to do all sorts of crazy things that we would never accept from any other type of company, and I still haven’t a clue as to why.

Hardware and software are products like any other, and they should be treated as such. If car makers are not allowed to force customers into accepting their own expensive repair programs – then why do we allow hardware companies to do so?


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