02 Dec 2010

are there updates available?

Everyone who knows me knows I love technology. I love everything about it. I especially like the fact that in the last few years most products can now receive updates. Computers always received updates, but not much else. Now I update everything. My computer’s BIOS, firmware for my hard drives, firmware for my TV and AVR (Receiver), my printer, and it goes without saying that I update my consoles, phone and desktop OS.

We live in a world where products can be improved for free and with little effort. Unfortunately there are a few downsides:

  1. Companies know that most people don’t update their hardware, so sometimes they have no incentive to make improvements.
  2. Companies sometimes deliberately ship products with buggy/slow software, because they know they can fix them later with an update.
  3. Updating software/firmware can sometimes cause regressions (meaning it can make your product worse/slower than before the update)
  4. Sometimes a company would rather you buy their next generation product, rather than give you the update for free.

I’ve seen all the the above situations. I have a really great WDTV Live media player. I love it. It has a Sigma SMP8655 chip that has hardware accelerated decoding of everything.

Basically I just plug the device into the TV via HDMI, and then connect a hard drive (that has media) to it via USB. It plays everything. Pretty much any format and all resolutions upto 1080p. Possibly the thing I like best about it is how power efficient it is. It can decode a 1080p film using <5 watts. It goes to sleep when off, and wakes up in around 3 seconds. Unfortunately Western Digital has been pretty horrible with updates. The problem is, Western Digital have releases 6 different versions of the device. The first (WDTV) was a reasonably good media player. The second (WDTV Live), which added more memory, faster CPU, and an ethernet port (with support for youtube, pandora etc..), then a 2nd generation of the FIRST product (WDTV gen.2), then a crummy cheap version that doesn’t play HD (WDTV mini), then a product that’s IDENTICAL to the WDTV Live, but which also adds support for netflix (yes, they screwed all original owners forcing them to buy an entire new device). Now, they argue it wasn’t their fault, as they needed to use a slightly different version of the Sigma SMP8655 that allows encrypted netflix content, but seriously, they should have thought about this earlier, and used the right chip on the original device. You’d think I was done, but no, they just released yet ANOTHER device (WDTV Live Hub). This time with an internal hard drive.

Now, I have no problem with them releasing a new version if it’s substantially different (or improved), as they did by releasing a version with a hard drive, as it clearly caters to a different market (I personally don’t want an internal hard drive, I’d rather stream or connect my own). My problem is that they released the new version with a significantly better user interface. It’s way better. The device uses the exact same chip as the previous WDTV Live plus, so it would be very easy to port back the improvements. They didn’t, and I now hate them. There’s nothing worse than getting screwed for being an early adopter. It’s because people like me bought the original Western Digital devices that they’ve been making newer, better models, yet this is how they repay us?!

Now, I know what Western Digital would say. They’d say “We only have a small team working on media players, we can’t possibly release updates for all 6 products, and have to give our latest release priority.”

The problem is, their argument is fundamentally flawed. A company like Western Digital shouldn’t be making 6 very similar devices. They should be making 1 or possibly 2. Just think of how Apple does things. They’re (by comparison to Western Digital) HUGE, yet they have an extremely small portfolio. They make 1 media player, 1 phone. Now yes, they do make a few different iPods and laptops, but those models are substantially different. Massive differences in size, cost and features differentiate them. That is because the market requires it. Some people want the best laptop for $2000, others want a cheaper laptop etc.. Some want a $1000 laptop, but I don’t believe for a second that there is a market for 6 different media players $70, $80, $100, $115, $150, $200. They should have just 2. A version with a hard drive, and a version without. I understand that a company will release new models (usually yearly), but when a company does that, they discontinue the old model, and only sell the new one. They are usually never meant to go head to head with the old model. The iPhone 4 doesn’t compete with the iPhone 3GS. Just look at the wikipedia page for the [WDTV][1]. Their models are released a few months apart. The other huge issue with this model is that they’re confusing customers. When someone buys an iPhone 4, they KNOW that the following year, the iPhone 5 will come out. There are no surprises. If WDTV had released a device and said “soon we’ll be releasing a 2nd device that adds this feature” then I’d be fine with it. But the WDTV Live device that I bought was supposed to be their flagship device. Still it does technically do the things I need it to, and has a great hacking community. On the one side, it’s unfortunate that a device built by a company with millions of dollar in R&D budget can be outdone by a couple of guys in their parents basement, but on the other side, I get a better product through hacking it, so why complain!