We Love Firmware

The two things that have most irked me about many devices I’ve owned is response time and shoddy UI. Usually, I assume there’s not much the manufacturer can do about response time, so I’m pretty forgiving on that point. But shoddy UI is another matter. Mobile phone UIs have of course been done to death on this point (although it’s fun to read this one), so I won’t harp on that – too much. However, I was recently pleased to discover a way out from bone-headed implementations or crass, commercially driven design. Free firmware – once beyond my powers of geek – is now well within it.

Here’s my little story. I recently thought I should get one of those media streaming devices so that I could watch and listen to stuff on my PC in the comfort of the living room. Not knowing much about this, I did some Googling.

First, I needed a router. My Internets come out of my Tiscali (LLU) set top box in the living room, which then go through a cable up the side of my house and into the attic where my PC is. Two years ago, I went all geeky, bought a £12 PC from eBay, stuck two network cards in and made my own router to sit in the attic, feeding my computers. Its only problem was that it was a PC. Not the sort of thing you want burring away in your living room. So I went looking for dedicated hardware.

The cheapest decent-looking thing seemed to be the Buffalo AirStation WHR-HP-G54. So I bought that. By chance, amongst my Googling, I stumbled on this. Intrigued, I read everything. Bingo! Replace the crappy Buffalo firmware with a powerful, free, community supported version! I was hooked. I felt in control, and above all, I knew I’d never need to chance it on the manufacturer’s website, or worse still, their “support line” (if that even existed). Running my own firmware was like breaking out of jail. I could hang out on the forums and bask in the warmth of community!

With my little router now providing a LAN in the living room, I could plug in the media streamer. I found a nice-looking cheap one after some Googling again – this time including the word “firmware” just in case. And again, bingo!

I’d love to see the day when I can buy a phone and choose what firmware to run on it, because (Apple aside) no manufacturer seems interested, or even capable, of providing the experience I want. But I assume that won’t happen while the telcos are gripped by ARPU-fever. Where the business model is more straightforward though, I think the future’s bright. At least for us geeks.