Wow, I didn’t even think this was possible in the modern IT world where software is constantly getting more intuitive and user-focused, but apparently it’s still possible to completely brick a modern digital system camera by accident. All it takes is poorly written software in combination with poorly written documentation (and just a second of not paying attention).
As I was packing my suitcase for the upcoming trip to the US the other night, I decided to give the new Olympus firmware a try. Having done the same process in the past with my old E-P1, I already knew that the process is a bit clunky and unintuitive with Olympus software, but I at least had a previous success in my memory, so it felt like an achievable task the night before traveling. (Three hours later, I definitely regretted that choice.)
The flaws in their documentation are obvious:
- The instructions in the firmware update tool just tell you to plug in the camera to the USB port, but in reality, the camera then prompts you to choose one of three modes. It turns out after some trial and error that the correct mode is the one in the middle of the menu (not the default choice). Pointing this out in the documentation wouldn’t necessarily cut down on their number of support incidents, but it would make for a much smoother product experience and it would reduce the user frustration, which would lead to a closer attention to what’s going on in the process. Crucially, however, this is an indication of a deeper issue at Olympus, which is that there is a disconnect between the developers and the people doing support documentation.
- After transferring the new firmware to the camera through USB, the update tool tells you that it finished updating the firmware and that you can either click Close to finish, or click the other button (I forget its label) to update the firmware on a different product, e.g a lens or another camera. However, the camera itself simultaneously shows a different set of instructions, or rather cryptic status indications. In reality, the update process is not finished, it’s just the USB transfer of the new firmware that is. Ensuring that the instructions on both screens are consistent would help reduce the likeliness of a user making the wrong choice in the process.
The latter point is where things broke down on my end, because I think I ended up turning the camera off by pressing the power button after having read the instructions on the computer screen to do so, but the camera screen was still showing some blinking icons that I paid little attention to at the time.
Boom. One second of not paying attention — two months without a working camera.
Documentation issues aside, having lead customer support for a major software product for the last five years, I’ve learned the importance of looking beyond documentation and rather focus part of the support efforts on fixing problems in the product itself and tightening up the loop between support and product development. Without this proactive type of support, you’re in trouble. Having gone through this painful experience with my almost brand new camera, I highly suspect that there is a disconnect between the support and development teams at Olympus.
Generally, you should remove as many possible points of user failure in the software itself as part of software design. In the case of the E-PM1, I have to wonder why it’s even possible to press the power button while the thing is updating — it’s an electronic button that they could easily disable during that critical moment, rather than exposing this ridiculously simple way of bricking your camera. I don’t know how many other people have had this problem, but having searched for it online, I know I’m not the only person. Another smart thing would be to ensure that there’s always a recovery bootstrap mode that enables the camera to communicate via the USB interface even after a failed firmware update attempt. That way, it would always be possible to retry and recover.
The brutal fact here is that I now have to send the camera to Olympus. The apathetic support rep that I was talking to on the phone today told me that their average processing time is at least a month due to their high support demand (no kidding!). Since I’ll only be in the Bay Area for a couple of weeks, this means I’m going to be without the camera for at least two months before I’m able to get back here again.
I tried to tell the support rep that I feel really strongly about improving processes like this that touch on customer support, because I have a full team of awesome people at Mozilla that do this for a living, and so I wanted to find the best venue to provide this type of feedback at a level where it would be listened to. He just politely said that he will pass on my feedback to “the customer feedback department” and that was the end of the discussion. Of course, what he really meant was “I’ll put some notes that I wrote into a system that will disappear among other notes that no one here really reads, and your problem won’t be solved proactively because I hardly talk to those that could do anything about this, and honestly I don’t really care either. Have a nice day.”
He didn’t really mean the last part — this is America after all. ;)