Researchers expect more e-waste due to software-related obsolescence
When people talked about “obsolescence” in the past, they usually meant aging or wear and tear of the hardware of devices, i.e. mechanical, electrical or electronic components. The Federal Environment Agency now wanted to put the software in the foreground and commissioned the TU Berlin, the Öko-Institut and the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM to carry out a study.
They believe that software-related obsolescence, for example of smart home devices, could lead to an increased volume of electronic scrap, increased resource consumption for the manufacture of new devices and economic burdens for customers. This should be counteracted politically.
Updates for at least ten years
From their study, the researchers conclude that security-relevant software updates should be made available for at least ten years. Basically, however, devices should also be able to be operated without external dependencies. In addition, interfaces are to be created to strengthen the compatibility and interoperability of systems, and manufacturers are to be obliged to name the dependencies of software-driven products and the guaranteed support time frame. On top of that, “eco-innovations” such as sustainable software development should be promoted, say the researchers.
After all, the proportion of everyday devices in the household and in building technology that is controlled by software is increasing, they write in the study “Analysis of the software-based influence on a shortened service life of products” (PDF). In the case of long-lasting products in particular, this obsolescence could become problematic for the durability and reliability of the devices, because the software can be used to define or change the service life and ease of use of devices. It is a constant challenge to guarantee the security of use and the compatibility between hardware and software as well as between devices.
As an example of “strong interlocking of hardware and software”, the researchers selected the smart light bulbs from the Signify brand Philips Hue. A router and a smartphone with an operating system are required for the actual product system of light bulbs, bridge and smartphone app. All of these devices are at risk of obsolescence.
Security updates for the lamps and the new wireless standard Matter can only be installed via the bridge. However, there are Hue lamps that can be operated without a bridge. Security risks and compatibility problems arise if this is not available. The cloud service cannot then be used either, the functionality is restricted.
“The product system is dependent on external market-dominating platforms and their standards,” the researchers write. If these change due to market entry, for example, the product system could become obsolete, as the HomeKit example shows. Due to its introduction, the Bridge v1 is outdated.
Eve radiator thermostats
The researchers also see similar risks of obsolescence in the smart radiator thermostats from Eve. A mobile device from Apple would be required for this, and a router and a smart home device from Apple would be required for external control. The device is certified by Apple as “works with HomeKit”. To do this, it has to go through the MFI (originally made for iPod) program and is subject to criteria and requirements set by Apple.
According to the study, if a user has opted for this product system, the risk of obsolescence for their smartphone increases if they do not have the current iPhone. For the researchers, it does not appear to be technically necessary that only the latest iPhone generation is supported, but Apple can enforce such high standards of quality and security.
In Apple’s App Store, however, the prerequisite for installing the Eve app on the iPhone is that it must run iOS 16.1 or later. When asked by heise online, the Öko-Institut explained that “as a rule, up-to-date software can no longer be installed on iPhones that are more than five to six years old”. The wording “the latest iPhones” refers to the versions that Apple still allows for new software. It is generally important with smartphones that the operating system makes it very uncomfortable, risky or impossible to use the device after a few years.
“Software doesn’t wear out”
“One always thinks that the software cannot wear out, it does not rust, but if a smartphone no longer receives software support after two years of use, it is a disaster from an engineering point of view. If we apply the principles of eco-design to the software, we could achieve a deceleration and a longer product service life”, explained Erik Poppe, project manager at the TU Berlin. In addition, it is usually assumed that an update increases the quality of use. However, this could potentially lead to long-term deterioration in performance or the loss of individual functionalities.
At the beginning of the study, the researchers found in a survey of a thousand people aged between 18 and 75 that 60 percent of them would like a better understanding of the specific risks of software obsolescence. According to their own statements, the researchers evaluated 50 cases of problem descriptions. Connection problems were reported most frequently. Another problem reported was that updates were no longer being carried out; the device shows incomprehensible or inexplicable error messages or sudden switching off occurs frequently. “In addition, a high level of emotionality was observed in the contributions. This means that the anger about a non-functioning device is very pronounced,” says the study.