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Don’t Fall Foul of the Firmware Fallacy!

by Rob Addy  |  January 14, 2013  |  Submit a Comment

Access rights to firmware aren’t completely meaningless yet but they are getting there. Support providers that continue to over rely upon theoretical customer firmware dependency will fail. Proprietary lock-in models only work if your customers believe that the technical chains that bind them are unbreakable. Many don’t believe any more. It’s just like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy… If they don’t believe in it; then it doesn’t exist!

The chains that bind exist only in the customer’s mind…

…business value backed up by tangible benefits will always be stronger than fear!

But don’t take my word for it. Remember the words of the greatest Jedi Master of them all!

Luke:   “…Is the dark side stronger?”

Yoda:   “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, 1980

Yes, forcing firmware upgrades is often seen by providers as the quicker and more seductive path but it isn’t always the easier route! Firmware access is rapidly losing its appeal and power as a coercive tool for a variety of reasons.

The proliferation of alternative O/S platforms and ever increasing degrees of kernel level configurability which negate the need to make firmware level changes are just some of the factors driving this change. An increasing number of IT Operations teams are adopting “zero change equals zero risk” mentalities. The routine updating firmware on the recommendation of the equipment manufacturer is no longer a common operations policy. Plausible options and a very limited (I am being kind) upside benefit associated with keeping firmware up to date mean that users feel that they can often do without that particular service feature.

We’ve just completed the first full week of 2013 and already I have spoken to several end user organizations that are actively looking to move away from their current OEM support arrangements and use alternative providers. The OEMs concerned are blissfully unaware. Client confidentiality precludes me from telling them the specifics. They are over reliant on the “attractiveness” and potency of their firmware and have failed to invest in next generation services that have a demonstrable and compelling value proposition. A wake up call is coming. Hopefully they will take note before it is too late. Complacency will kill you if you let it.

Do providers need to start selling the benefits of firmware upgrades more actively?

Is it a security issue? Will it improve performance? Will it improve system stability and reliability? Can it reduce power consumption? Does it help to improve operational efficiency? How big is the value? Does it out weigh the hassle or inconvenience? Can you quantify the improvements? Better yet, can you monetize the benefits? Are the savings sufficiently attractive to overcome corporate inertia  and lethargy? Is it material to your audience? But please remember not to oversell the rationale behind upgrading. Customers always know when you push things beyond the realms of plausibility.

…even if they articulate the value well, customers still may not “buy” it! We must not forget that many of your buyers will have been conditioned by consumer electronics products such as smart TVs and games consoles to expect a continuous flow of firmware updates for free. Using access to firmware as the primary means of promoting your service value is likely to be as successful as a street vendor trying to sell reconditioned Apple Newton’s outside of the CES entrance. No. Given that “retro” is “chic” the Newton’s would probably sell much better than the firmware!

You definitely do not need to start spreading FUD in the hope of scaring customers into action…

Nor do you need to spend too much time on overly restricting access to firmware. In the past couple of years some providers have placed more emphasis on making firmware less readily available than they have on developing their service portfolios. Get over yourselves. Firmware patches will invariably find their way into the “wild” through community forums, partner channels etc. If someone really really wants to dishonestly obtain your firmware then they will do so irrespective of what barriers you try to implement. Indeed, it could be argued that these “barriers” do more harm to the customer experience of “honest” customers than the difficulties they pose to the unscrupulous.

“The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

Princess Leia, Star Wars, 1977

You can of course bring out the “ultimate deterrent” of the vendor audit but that often creates more long term harm and should really only be used against habitual offenders or those with whom you do not want a long term relationship.

Even IF you can convince customers of the merits of firmware (which to be frank is a pretty big ask in some cases) it is still likely to be insufficient on its own to prevent dissatisfaction and defection. It needs to be framed within the context of the broader service value proposition. And if you haven’t got one of those then you really do have problems!


Category: support-value  

Tags: firmware  proprietary-lock-in  

Rob Addy
Research Vice President
5 years at Gartner
More years than I care to remember in the IT industry

Welcome to my blog! I post about all things services related from the provider perspective. End-users are welcome to read but please be aware that you may sometimes find its content unsettling. I will endeavour to post frequently (as it's a lot cheaper than a therapist) but please forgive me if other more mundane activities occasionally get in the way...Read my official Gartner bio here

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