AV Police Squad

Firmware Versus Software

I bet a lot of you saw that title and thought this was going to be a blog about the differences of firmware versus software. Although that is a fascinating topic, you would be wrong. This is a blog about good versus evil…old versus young…cats versus dogs…”soda” versus “pop”: the proverbial fight between firmware versus software.

I’m sure it’s happened to the best of us. We get to a site that we haven’t been to in a few years, and they want a slight adjustment. So, you break out your laptop and realize the software to interface with the device doesn’t jive with the firmware on the device itself. You are left with a decision to make: Do I roll back my software to communicate with the system, or do I update the firmware on the system? Both come with risk.

Depending on the purpose of the visit, my gut typically tells me to roll back the software. In my experience, updating the firmware is very risky. With new firmware the device may:

  • Stop responding to commands from a control system
  • Not accept the old configuration file, and need to be re-configured from scratch
  • Turn an estimated 30-minute service call into an eight hour firmware-updating marathon, and don’t forget the devices that require multiple firmware upgrades to get through major releases!
  • You could “brick” an older device, and take down the system

However, rolling back the software comes with its own risks:

  • The old software may not be available
  • The old software may be available, but may take extra time to load because you have to uninstall all instances of the current version, as well as any software that communicates with it, and find that hidden process on a YouTube video three pages deep because this is the “first time” the manufacturer heard of this happening
  • Turn an estimated 30-minute service call into a four-hour hunt for configuration software from 2003
  • The old software might not work on your newer laptop
  • You could “brick” your laptop

I’m not sure there is a best answer, but the least-sucky answer is usually trying to find the old software. I believe I made fun of a system once that had an old dusty laptop left with it with all the software required to interface with the system as installed. Sure it took ten minutes to boot up, but all the software was there and worked with the system. I would much rather deal with an old laptop than risk taking down a system.

You might be thinking that re-configuring a conference room with a few microphones isn’t that bad, and you might be right. However, re-configuring a building-wide paging system with 47 zones and hundreds of loudspeakers would be a pain in the neck. This is especially infuriating because it is difficult to explain to an end-user why you can’t increase the level to the locker room zone during the current visit.

“The person on the phone said it should take 10 minutes!”

“You and ‘the person’ are absolutely right. It should take ten minutes. But have you heard of the epic saga that describes a war that has been raging on since the adoption of DSP-based AV? A war that has claimed hundreds of [audiovisual systems’] lives? I’m talking about a little thing called ‘Firmware versus Software.'”

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