When everything is software, you don’t really own anything

The MacBook Air I bought in 2014 looks like it is in tip-top condition. It turns on quickly and easily. It runs Safari, Chrome, and Firefox just fine. But if you want to use Microsoft Word or Teams, you simply can’t.

It’s not that Microsoft products don’t work on MacBooks — I used Microsoft Word on my MacBook for years. The problem is that, even though I am all paid up with Microsoft to download and use the latest version of their products, the Microsoft software updates for these programs are incompatible with the operating system on my computer.

Apple has chosen to stop providing updates for all 2014 MacBooks. This means, slowly but surely, as more and more other apps get updated, fewer and fewer programs will work on my computer, even though it otherwise works just as well as the day I bought it.

We see this with cellphones too. If you owned an iPhone 5 and took perfect care of it, it would be a useless brick now because Apple stopped updating the software for it back in 2017.

If this planned obsolescence were confined to phones and laptops, that would be one thing. But the more automakers stuff computers into your car, the danger arises that your car will become useless well before its parts start breaking down.

We can already see this in the farmers’ fight for the right to repair the tractors they thought they had bought from John Deere. It turns out that when you buy a tractor from John Deere today, you are also committing to having all repairs done by John Deere. That can be a problem for rural farmers, many of whom must drive two hours to the closest dealership when their tractor stops working. Some farmers have even begun using code from Eastern European websites to hack their own tractors to make repairs. And John Deere isn’t happy.

But John Deere is not the only corporation looking to change what was once a one-time purchase into a subscription service. All the car companies are doing it — not just the ones you might think, such as Tesla. Honda recently announced it was “shifting focus from non-recurring hardware (product) sales” to “recurring business in which Honda continues to offer various services and value to its customers after the sale through Honda products that combine hardware and software.”

In other words, car companies are no longer satisfied selling you a car once, with which you are free to do as you please. Now they want to lock you into a never-ending stream of updates and upgrades, all of which come at a hefty price.

Not only does this concentrate power and wealth in a few car companies, but it kills independent car parts and repair businesses, and it makes it impossible for people to tinker with and modify the vehicles they own.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Patent and copyright laws are government-created monopolies. If we don’t want to live in a world where everything we supposedly own quickly turns into a useless brick, we are going to need to change these laws.