1984 and all that

The day Amazon deleted 1984

This LinkedIn article by Steve Blank, When Product Features Disappear, is a must-read if you ever pay to download anything – software updates, e-books etc – and in fact even if you don’t pay but do rely on something remotely controlled by Someone Else.

The article is a swift and eye-popping rundown of a few recent sudden and unannounced withdrawals of product features in programs as diverse as Google Maps, Apple’s iWork, Tesla’s electric car software and Amazon’s Kindle. It’s a pain to have something you rely on suddenly whipped out from underneath you, but the implications and ramifications are quite frankly scary.

1984 and the Memory Hole

Blank is swift to point out the irony of George Orwell’s 1984 being a victim of this remote downgrading (a further explanation of the memory hole in this New York Times article on the affair) but there’s a connection to be drawn between government censors sending books down the incineration chute, and companies C21st ability to remotely reach out and relieve you of something you may well have paid for.  The New York Times article includes the following quote from 1984 purchaser Charles Slater:

“I never imagined that Amazon actually had the right, the authority or even the ability to delete something that I had already purchased.”

Whose right?

Whose rights and who’s right? Whether it’s Apple playing with its code base to the huge detriment of user experience or Google prettifying Google Maps while wrecking the user experience, what’s emerging is a culture of companies feeling free to make changes regardless of what the customer believes he may have paid for and have the right to use.

Perhaps the most shocking example is Tesla, a company from which one can’t help but to have hoped for better. Blank’s article details the steps taken by Tesla to update software in the light of recent fires. Having encouraged Model S drivers to buy the $2,250 “smart air suspension” feature which lowered the level of the car at motorway cruising speeds, Tesla then pushed out a software update that disabled this expensive feature. Almost the worst bit? That the release notes bigged up the new features and mentioned nothing about disabling this rather significant one. Eventually, after a great many software downgrades, Tesla mentioned something about it in a blog post. As Blank says in his article:

In the 20 century if someone had snuck into your garage and attempted to remove a feature from your car, you’d call the police. In the 21 century it’s starting to look like the normal course of business.

Somewhere, buried in the small print, will be the legalise that permits companies to do this. Content posted online is often not actually the property of those who posted it, but of where it’s posted. Together with the lack of regulation Blank refers to, the moral of this story is definitely caveat emptor.

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