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Don't let the tech giants kill your gadgets before their time

Skype should still work on 'ancient' Galaxy phone
Fri Aug 29 2014, 15:20
chris merriman

YOU MIGHT REMEMBER that a couple of weeks ago we reported on a live chat between INQUIRER reader Robert Bernecky, and a Samsung support worker.

The story itself was, specifically about Linux support for phone upgrades, but it opened a can of worms.

Several commenters pointed out that Mr Bernecky had an "old" phone - an original Galaxy S, a model that was released in June 2010, just over four years ago.

And yet some of the comments we received were quite dismissive of Mr Bernecky's plight.

Tea Party Citizen said, "It's outdated hardware, running a third party OS version that was superseded almost [four] years ago. Get real."

Nebadon2025 added, "I just want to say that this article makes you sound just as dumb as the tech person, sorry Skype doesn't work on your ancient phone."

Hang on a minute. I thought we were all up in arms because Microsoft wasn't still supporting Windows XP on our clunky old 32-bit machines? Does that make our standards (a) single? or (b) double?

I was a bit taken aback by all this, because fundamentally, there was nothing wrong with the hardware, simply that the vendor had stopped supporting the firmware. Somewhere along the line, we've been made so obsessed with upgrading that we've forgotten our rights as consumers.

The Sale of Goods Act 1979 states that consumers have six years to make a claim about a device that is not fit for purpose. That's not a guarantee that it has to last six years - but it does mean that in the UK, if a consumer thinks that their device has been rendered unfit for purpose, they can make a legal case.

But what has actually happened here is that Samsung and, in Mr Bernecky's case, his carrier, preempted all this, as they have decided that a perfectly adequate piece of hardware is no good and has therefore reached the end of its useful life, and have therefore stopped supporting it.

They've got you over a barrel and the scam is very simple. Samsung - or whoever wants to sell more phones - can't do that if your old phone is working correctly, so they stop supporting updates for it. We, the consumers, are encouraged to see the hardware as out of date and therefore we must upgrade, but in fact, mobile hardware hasn't changed much over the past five years.

"But I must have the new version!" I hear you cry. "It has a fingerprint reader and an incrementally faster processor!"

Blimey. How can I have been so blind? What would I do without being able to unlock a device on the third attempt after the first two failed to recognise my fingerprint?

The fact is that not everyone needs every new release of every gadget known to man. No. Stop arguing. You don't. Nowhere on Maslow's hierarchy of needs does it mention "the fitness tracking gyroscope of self actualisation".

If you want to upgrade, fine, but Mr Bernecky was clearly very happy with his Galaxy S, and yet the company has made it obsolete before its time.

Samsung is far from the only company guilty of this and smartphones are far from the only devices. When Apple switched to Intel chips for its Mac computers in 2005, very quickly, perfectly good PowerPC chipped versions started to suffer from a bad case of update famine.

Already, there's a big group of readers with their fingers ready to dive on Disqus and proclaim, "But Chris! There's Linux! Linux will change the world!" and you're not wrong, so let's take that as read for now and return to our mobiles.

If you've got a mobile that's coming to the end of its contract, remember that quite often it's the carrier that hasn't pushed the firmware, even when the manufacturer has made it. There might be a newer version available to SIM-free devices, and if not, there are third-party alternatives. So ask yourself - do I need a new device? Really?

If you do - brilliant. If you just want your old one to run better and have new features, and you're on Android, then you're golden. Because Android is, like its kernel-sharing cousin Linux, open source, so all the restrictions are entirely artificial.

Android 4.4 Kitkat introduced a smaller memory footprint that allowed it to function much better on older, lower powered devices, meaning that you'll probably find a significant speed boost as well as the new features.

The hardest thing will be if your manufacturer has locked your bootloader, but once that's done, depending on your model of phone you'll almost certainly find that you can put new firmware on it in minutes and give it a new lease on life.

Some modders like Cyanogen have gone on to take their firmware to a commercial level, still providing it free to self-mod, but offering it wholesale as official firmware to phone makers, so you needn't worry about "hobbyist" quality levels.

There are plenty of websites around that can give you insight on how to do it, but a good place to start is XDA Developers, a community of five million device hackers who have been doing it for years.

So to you serial upgraders - more power to you, keep on upgrading. Upgrading is the future. Upgrading is progress.

But for those of you who just want something that works: this one's for you Mr Bernecky! Don't be held to ransom by manufacturers creating built in obsolescence. It isn't as hard as you think to make an older device feel like new again. Go forth and hack your old devices - you'll get such a buzz when you succeed.

People power works. There are still 25 percent of computer users on Windows XP, five months on from its end of life, despite the impression given by Microsoft that we're all going to catch diseases and our legs will fall off unless we start using Live Tiles. In fact, it has just been announced that an unofficial Service Pack 4 to keep it going even longer has been produced. Break free from your corporate oppressors.

Just don't invalidate the warranty. We can't stress that enough. The above applies to old gadgets. The INQUIRER takes no responsiblity for you breaking new gadgets through experimenting. It will end your warranty and, rightly or wrongly, your manufacturer will laugh in your face when you send it in for repair. Plus we'll say, "I told you so," which is even worse.

If you'd like to know a lot more about the way that the technology manufacturers have subtly adjusted our minds to make us upgrade, I thoroughly recommend checking out "The Men Who Made Us Spend" shown on the BBC recently. Episode One is all about technology and it will blow your mind. µ


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