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Firmware Flap

11 Jun, 2010 By: Chris Tribbey

Consumer electronics used to be very simple: once your VHS became obsolete, you upgraded to a DVD player. And now that you’ve upgraded from DVD to Blu-ray Disc, it should work as-is for every new disc you buy. Right?


Firmware has offered a whole new element to home media, offering better audio, downloadable content and access to features (such as Netflix), all that initially may not have come with your player. Firmware also has added a whole new level of headaches for consumers used to simple plug-and-play movie technology. If you bought your Blu-ray player in 2009 there’s a good chance you needed to upgrade your firmware to play the No. 1 Blu-ray of all time, Avatar. If you bought your player last Christmas, there’s a good chance you need a firmware upgrade to access any new VOD features.

“It’s the price you pay for upgradeable technology,” said Ross Rubin, executive director of industry analysis for home entertainment research at The NPD Group. “There’s so much that’s been added to the Blu-ray specification.”

The Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) has done everything it can to keep consumers informed regarding firmware upgrades. At Blu-raydisc.com/en/technical/updates/en.html, the BDA directs consumers to firmware upgrades at participating manufacturers’ support sites. Additionally, studios have helped to inform consumers about firmware upgrades, with paper inserts in discs and on-screen messages with new Blu-ray titles pointing toward needed firmware updates.

“One title even informed me onscreen that my title needed an update in order to play it, which I was able to do online through my player’s connection,” said Andy Parsons, SVP of corporate communications and new product planning for Pioneer and chair of the Blu-ray Disc Association promotion committee in the United States.

Blu-ray player companies post firmware files to their websites for download and even send discs to registered owners if they don’t have Internet access. Still, sometimes, it’s not enough.

“For the tech-savvy user it’s not a problem, but for a format trying to go mainstream [Blu-ray manufacturers] have a way to go,” said Adam Gregorich, administrator for Home Theater Forum. “When my dad couldn’t play back a movie I loaned him, I asked if his firmware was up to date. He had no idea what I was talking about. He’s a pretty sharp guy, but he never was able to create the update following the instructions on the manufacturer’s website. It gets added to my list next time I’m visiting.”

While some standalone Blu-ray player owners have found several reasons to complain about problems with firmware, perhaps no player has generated as much firmware controversy as the PlayStation 3. Firmware updates for the PS3 in 2009 allegedly bricked Blu-ray capability on older versions of the system, and a firmware update in March this year removed the system’s capability to run other operating systems. Consumers have filed class-action lawsuits against Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA) over both issues.

Requests for a comment from SCEA were not immediately returned.

“Sony keeps finding new ways to prioritize DRM [digital rights management] and the war on copying over the interests of its consumers,” said Peter Eckersley, senior staff technologist for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a consumer digital rights group.

He pointed to Sony BMG CDs that installed copy protection on consumer computers in 2005, leading to lawsuits and an eventual recall of offending discs. He also said that the Advanced Access Content System (AACS) on Blu-rays, the standard for copy protection for the format (a format developed by Sony) allegedly “contains a way for new discs to brick your Blu-ray playback altogether if you want to keep running Linux.”

Eckersley is convinced that the Blu-ray players consumers latch on to en masse will be those that don’t “get in the users’ way.”

“The video distribution system that will win in the long run won’t be the one that has the most bells and whistles,” he said. “It will be the one that functions correctly.”

However, some support Sony’s decision to remove the feature for running other OSs on the PS3.

“SCEA should have the ability on a game system to enforce how they want their customers to use the system, particularly if it means keeping the majority of the customers on a stable platform,” said Microsoft’s Kevin Collins, former evangelist for the HD DVD format, the rival to the Sony-backed Blu-ray.

Van Ling, an independent Blu-ray producer, also gave SCEA a pass for removing the ability for users to run other operating systems.

“I can see their reasoning,” he said. “They have neither the bandwidth nor the interest to support multiple systems on the PS3, when they have a big enough task supporting the main one they have on it. Sony needs to get that right first.”

Yet Justin Sluss, founder, owner and editor in chief of HighDefDiscNews.com, called PS3 firmware upgrades that allegedly damaged systems or removed features “a bad move in terms of keeping consumers happy.”

Home Theater Forum’s Gregorich called the PS3 “the perfect example of firmware done right and wrong.”

He said that updating firmware to allow for BD Live and, on June 10, 3D gaming, are signs SCEA and the PS3 are doing consumers right. Using firmware to potentially brick Blu-ray playback and retroactively removing features like the ability to run other operating systems were wrong, he said.

Ling, however, said it’s eventually up to the consumer to empower themselves with information about their products, and that firmware updates, for the most part, are not a mandatory feature, or something to fear.

“I think consumers are pretty used to the idea of doing this, since virtually every type of sophisticated media device needs software updates from time to time,” said the BDA’s Parsons. “I’m certain that specific performance improvements have been achieved by virtually all player [Blu-ray] companies via firmware updates.”

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