In the last few months, the general media has published multiple articles (this Wired article, and this newer NPR article — just to name a couple) attacking farm equipment manufacturers for their proprietary software. Both articles act like producers can’t repair any equipment because the software is locked down. The NPR article says a producer “waited for a day” because his “tractor belts were loose”. Now what do loose belts on track tractor have to do with software?
I’m not saying these articles are all wrong, they do have some legitimate complaints. Yes, most manufacturers use proprietary messages on their vehicles’ CAN-Bus. And no, not just anyone can access or purchase the software to read or make changes to those settings. But, there are reasons to take the manufacturers’ side of this argument as well. Most makes and models have technical manuals that go far beyond the scope of any owner’s manual, and they’re available for anyone to purchase. See the John Deere Technical Information Bookstore, for example.
Another reason for locking down software is the protection of warranty. How many tractors and combines out there have been “chipped” or modified while still under warranty? A ton of them. And when those vehicles have potentially more breakdowns, guess who ends up paying more for their next piece of equipment (extended warranty options too) – all of us. Warranty expense is always taken into consideration when manufacturing and even selling equipment.
Some manufacturers are making great strides towards opening up their software. They’re partnering with third parties; Take the John Deere API for example. Or they’re a part of many standards, such as the many ISOBUS standards. Other third parties are making their own strides reading the proprietary CAN-bus messages; Take the Farm Logs “Flow” device for example. Or look at the kind of innovation Precision Planting has been working on with their Field View app, likely the most powerful tablet app in all of agriculture.
Look at how much technological innovation continues to come to Agriculture, and at such a fast pace. Yes, we all have to pay for autosteer activation and RTK subscriptions, but that money gets poured right back into new innovations and support. I’ve seen many software updates for existing products add functionality without adding to the price. Manufacturers don’t develop this software for free, and even though services like Google’s Gmail or Drive are “free”, they make money on your personal information and advertisements.
For a legal perspective, Todd Janzen has written a couple pieces that give a good look at both sides.
I have no current ties to any manufacturer. I was not compensated in any way for writing this post. My goal for this post was just to show that there is another side to the argument.