Firmware updates for smart technologies

By Pär Håkansson February 1, 2017


In the fast-moving world of the Internet of Things, it’s more important than ever to make sure you can keep your products up to date quickly, securely and easily. Updating firmware remotely brings benefits to both companies and consumers.

Breaking with the past

In the early days of consumer electronics, device firmware and software was stored on a read-only memory (ROM) or one-time programmable (OTP) chip and once there it would stay exactly as it was, forever. This was fine for simple devices like calculators, as basic mathematics hasn’t changed for hundreds of years!

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But the use of ROM and OTP meant that if serious problems came to light, either the device was rendered obsolete or it would have to be recalled for reprogramming or replacement, at great cost to the company and great inconvenience to the customer.

Smart technologies need updating

As devices became more complex – digital music players, GPS watches, and so on – it quickly became both necessary and desirable to update devices to fix bugs and enhance the product without the need for a costly recall.

Firmware moved from ROM chips to flash memory, which allowed it to be easily updated. This was initially done using a cable connected to a PC, which meant that updates would only happen if the user remembered to check for them…and hadn’t lost the cable that came with their device!

Nowadays, most devices are connected to the internet, either directly or via a smartphone or hub. This allows firmware and software to be updated over-the-air (OTA) without the need for a cable.

Devices such as smart watches check for updates automatically. This has quickly become the norm and users now expect that they will be informed of available updates.

Read more: Smart clothes and wearable technology

OTA is great news for product makers

The benefits to manufacturers of OTA firmware updates are huge. Your product won’t become obsolete due to a problem that only makes itself known after release.

When developing a new connected device, you’re relying on other companies to follow standards in, for example, routers, smartphones and hubs. This isn’t always the case so even though your product follows all standards perfectly, it might still not function properly for the user through no fault of your own. It’s better to be able to respond by saying “we’ll fix this” rather than “you’ll need to buy a different router.”

New standards are constantly being developed and if you can reprogram your device to take advantage of these it can lead to improvements to things like battery life and performance.

By releasing when your product is ‘good enough’, your product development cycle shortens. It’s better to keep to your release schedule and then wow your customers with new features rather than promise everything only to suffer from long delays as you fix problems.

OTA is great for customers too

 All of this brings benefits for customers too. OTA updates are quick and painless, giving the customer peace of mind along with new features and functionality.

It’s also important from a security perspective. If an embarrassing hack happens to your product, OTA updates can fix the issue before your customers even notice.

Perhaps the most important benefit is avoiding damage to your brand’s reputation. No one likes products to have problems but if you’re able to fix bugs and security holes quickly, without recalling them, then customers will gain greater trust in your brand.

Don’t force it

Updating firmware and software without asking the user should be avoided unless it’s a major security hole. Just because most users don’t use certain features, the ones who do will be very annoyed if they suddenly disappear without notice.

On the flipside, don’t nag users to install updates. If they’re all set to head outside on a hike, they won’t want to wait around for an update on the gear they’re using to track their distance and location. Allowing users to defer updates to a more convenient time will make your product more user-friendly.

The benefits of OTA firmware updates are great for consumers and for businesses. They allow products to be developed more quickly and be flexible and adaptable to changing trends. They put the company in control of security in an unpredictable ecosystem and leave the customer in control of how they use their product. It’s a simple way to improve things for everyone.


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Topics: smart home, cellular IoT

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By: Pär Håkansson

Pär Håkansson holds an M.Sc. EE and a Technical Licentiate degree in communication electronics from Linköping University. Pär has extensive engineering experience starting as a RF Application Engineer. He spent the last decade in the low power wireless industry, holding positions in both research and business/marketing. Pär Håkansson joined Nordic Semiconductor in 2015 and currently works as a Strategic marketing manager. He also serves as a board member for the Thread Group.

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