Let me service pack you

Have you ever installed an upgrade service pack on your computer? How'd it go?

Perhaps like me, less than perfect. After installing Microsoft's SP2 on my Media Edition computer, the printers stopped working properly. Even with new drivers, every print job waited 45 seconds before it would start.

Never cured the problem. Shortly after the printers died, so did the hard drive. Even a $400 clean-room inspection couldn't recover any of my data. Was the service pack the culprit?

Sony recently had to upgrade the software in a series of new televisions. Consumers discovered that after the TVs had run 1200 hours, they couldn't be turned off. The company had to send Flash memory sticks to 18,000 customers to fix the problem. Expensive.

Thankfully, there's now another way to upgrade the software in your TV set remotely. A company called Update Logic has proposed what it believes is a better way to upgrade software in televisions. Hidden on each local PBS station's VBI will be data that the set maker can use to change your TV's software. The idea is that Update Logic can deliver and install software updates to millions of DTV sets at a fraction of the cost and time to send out Flash cards. The company claims it will reduce manufacturers' costs and “increase the reliability of digital televisions.”

What I'm missing is how updating the software in my TV set makes it more reliable. Sounds to me like the set makers aren't too sure about how this whole analog switch off is going to go come Feb. 17, 2009. We know the analog sets will go dark. But, what if the digital ones quit too?

Maybe the set makers are afraid that all hell will break loose if over-the-air ATSC doesn't work for millions of viewers. At least this way (maybe) they've got a back door way to jimmy the TV sets, hoping to make them work — at least a little bit.

But, what if this whole upgrade thing is much more ominous? What if the set makers have a larger agenda? Sony could use the software download to insert subliminal messages on its sets that say, “You need to buy a new Sony TV. Spend lots of money.”

What if RCA wanted to make your set obsolete? Your HDTV may only be two years old, but now it's 2007 and the company wants you to buy a new one. Instead of using a subliminal message, maybe RCA just gradually reduces the display resolution from 1080 lines to 480 lines or adds some jitter to the picture.

A set maker could secretly reprogram all sets more than two years old to suddenly begin having reception or display problems. With a software tweak, the TV set could begin randomly changing channels or the volume becomes erratic, going up and down.

What if someone hacked the system software and was able to turn all TV sets to a specific channel — or to turn them all off? Suddenly, without warning … America's television sets go dark. No audio. No video. No “24” or “CSI” or “American Idol.”

No TV! Hmm, on second thought that might be an upgrade I could go for.

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