Dreamin’ of Chameleons

You might not have noticed, but… your production gear ain’t what it used to be. And I’m talkin’ last week, before that firmware download.

I keep havin’ this bizarre dream… sometimes after I’ve scarfed down a pepperoni parfait just before hittin’ the hay, but not always. I’m in the studio, or on location, or in the truck, and I’ve gotta install a new piece of production equipment—only I can’t exactly figure out what it does.

It’s got a bunch of familiar connectors, but that ain’t sayin’ much; six BNCs and a couple o’ HDMI jacks… could be anything with either inputs or outputs, audio or video, or all of the above. Within a few dreamtime minutes, I’m near tears; I know that the whole show hangs on me getting this equipment configured and on-line—but for the life of me, I can’t figure out what it’s supposed to be.

Now, my copy of “Your Dreams Explained” doesn’t say too much about video engineering, but it does suggest that my night terrors are rooted in daytime stresses. And I think I’ve doped it out: Buy a piece of production gear, and there’s no guarantee that, in six months or so, its list of features and functions will be the same. Funny, it doesn’t do what they promised it would do. It does incredibly more!

That, my friends, is the newfound power of firmware updates— not just fixes, but features!

Now, no diatribe from ol’ Mario is complete without a visit from Nellie the Neuron and a stroll down memory lane. In this case, though, the memory runs more like a nightmare. Because back in the day, when a change in functionality was ordered, a Field Service Engineer with an attaché case full o’ tools arrived with a clear plastic tube full of skinny blue wires. Consulting his service bulletin… basically, the Code of Hammurabi in a three-ring binder… he’d wire-wrap jumpers from one end of a circuit board to the other—pin 6 of U27 jumps to pin 1 of U12; pull up pin 5, ground pin 10.

In no time, you’ve got a fuzzy blue tapestry instead of a PCB. And that, dear readers, was a firmware change… pretty doggone firm, I’d say.

But until recently, firmware changes— whether wire-wrap, EEPROM swaps or flashed upgrades—were intended, with almost no exceptions, to solve problems, fix bugs and generally patch things up… in other words, to simply catch you up to the state that was promised at the time of purchase.

Fact is, more and more of today’s whizbang production devices qualify as “firmware chameleons,” shape-shifters with an essence that’s amorphous. And the result is no nightmare. It’s a cost-saving, feature-packed miracle of modern times. Firmware chameleons are becoming more and more common, and so is the gigantic smile plastered across my mug when I discover yet another bonus functionality.

Thinkin’ about some of the more notorious chameleon nests, a couple of companies come to mind. Blackmagic Design genius-in-chief Grant Petty just seems to keep adding features and upgrading functions willy-nilly. Blackmagic’s ATEM switchers, in particular, seem to add features and workflow improvements about every 90 days; and the BMD HyperDeck SSD recorders have added codecs that weren’t supported at launch, essentially changing the units’ market positioning entirely.

Lately, ol’ Cousin Sony has become a first-class chameleon breeder. Everything from switchers to monitors have benefited from firmware-delivered shifts. But the most dramatic changes have come to Sony’s Super 35mm family of cameras, where hardware outputs, recording modes and even fundamental sensor resolution (in the FS-700) now exceed original specifications, or soon will.

There are more… plenty more. And they’re all companies that planned ahead, guessing someday there might be room for improvement.

However, here’s the real thing about the firmware chameleons: Sure, it’s a geekfest of the first order… tech for tech’s sake. But more than that, it’s a love fest, evidence of some truly innovative companies who are lovin’ their customers big-time.

The best of the chameleons aren’t charging to unlock each new feature; instead, they’re building customer loyalty— and brand loyalty—by giving it away and by giving their products incredibly more value. And, if you think nobody notices, just check these firms’ Facebook pages and Twitter feeds and user groups… they’re breeding faithful fans by the metric busload.

Like mama used to say: “Take care of your friends, and they’ll take care of you.” And, as far as I know, she’s never even downloaded a firmware update… how ’bout that.

Mario Orazio is the pseudonym of a well-known television engineer who wishes to remain anonymous. E-mail him atmorazio@nbmedia.com.