Who Owns The Machine Anyway?

The story of the McDonalds’ frozen treat machine involves technology, trade secrets, inside business dealings, franchiser/franchisee friction, and an alleged NDA violation. In short: lots of money and lawyers. But it also involves something that matters to all of us hackers — what it means to own a machine.

Sad clown holding melted ice cream coneThe brief background is that McDonald’s requires its franchisees to buy a particular Taylor Soft Serve machine. The machine would enter pasteurizing mode and has opaque error codes that are triggered apparently without the owners or operators understanding, at which point Taylor service techs come in to fix them — and get paid for their service, naturally. A small hardware startup, Kytch, stepped into the mess with a device that man-in-the-middles the Taylor machine’s status codes, allowing the machine’s owners to diagnose and monitor it themselves. Heroes, right?

Taylor, naturally, wants to look at a Kytch device, but they’re locked up under NDAs that Kytch require users to sign in order to protect their trade secrets. So when Taylor gets their hands on one, Kytch takes them to court for, ironically, reverse engineering their device that they built to reverse Taylor’s protocols.

There are no good guys in this fight: it’s corporate secrecy fighting corporate secrets. None of which, by the way, is Hackaday particularly fond of. Why? Because these secrets rob the ostensible owners of the devices of their ability to inspect, fix, and operate their machines. This is akin to the “right to repair” idea, but it’s somehow even more fundamental — the right to know what your own devices are doing.

What this story needs is a Robin Hood. And as the devices we get sold become increasingly wrapped up in EULAs and NDAs, and full of secret sauce that’s out of our control, we’re going to need a lot more Robin Hoods. It’s McDonald’s frozen treat machines, but it’s also your smart thermostat and your inkjet printer and your — you name it. Have at it, Hackaday!

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42 thoughts on “Who Owns The Machine Anyway?

  1. “This is akin to the “right to repair” idea, but it’s somehow even more fundamental — the right to know what your own devices are doing.”

    Is it when McDonalds owns the very land one’s franchise lies on? Seems the more important right is that.

      1. He’s saying they only think they own the land because if you don’t pay your land rent to the government they will take it away because they have a police and a large army so you can’t say no it’s my land.

        1. Except in the US where a nation was born out of unruly land owners no longer wanting to pay taxes and ensured their citizens the ability to do the same with that “pesky” second amendment.

          The question is, is it worth it for McDonalds to go to war with the US federal government? Not just yet but soon!

          If you live in a stable relatively corruption free nation like the US you own it when you have a piece of paper that says you own it. If you don’t wanna pay taxes there are definitely ways around doing that.

    1. Well, not necessarily. A “Robin Hood” might also be some people willing to release hacked firmware and software, reverse engineer and basically violate DMCA laws. And this has happened in the past, but it may be time to make it happen more often.
      Robin Hood was an outlaw and enemy of the crown , after all.

  2. Loss of ownership of our purchases is a growing problem.

    Here are three examples, all of which show how a device that worked well for years are now held hostage to new manufacturers’ ransom demands. In each case, after a firmware update the manufacturer requires establishment of an account with the manufacturer to use the device.

    1) Samsung Galaxy phone with pulse oxymeter
    2) Belkin WEMO smart jplug
    3) Kardia Mobile EKG

    In each case, the manufacturer has converted a product into a service. The manufacturers have added conditions, demading that I accede to their whims to receive their permission to use hardware that I bought years ago. (I refuse to supplicate on bended knee to use MY equipment…)


    1) I bought a non-connected pulse oxy, works beautifully
    2) I bought a few Zwave plugs, an HUSBZB controller, downloaded and installed HomeAssistant
    3) Still searching for a viable replacement

      1. Nah the PS2 never lost that ability you are thinking of the PS3, for PS2 Linux you had to get a special disc to load it and it was obvious very basic with the 32MB of ram and that slow but powerful/advanced 128 bit PS2 CPU.

    1. Kardia is so cool, and HW is not that expensive. What is the story with turning it from product to service?
      BTW: what MCU does it use? I found photos, “AC019 ECG SYSTEM Teardown” on FCC ID database, but I cannot tell MCU markings from PCB photo (picture Internal Bottom). Do you have one, and fancy tearown?

    1. and all this for something I would not call icecream at all… But hey, I’ve got a real Italian ice cream shop here in Arnhem. their family have been making ice since 1928 so they know their stuff. but of course they don’t do drivetrough…

      1. Apocryphal maybe, but how about the golden screwdriver? https://support.sdsusa.com/support/dictionary/g/?qry=goldenscrewdriver#goldenscrewdriver

        This old Register article seems chock full of examples: https://www.theregister.com/2014/08/28/why_sdn_means_more_pay_to_play/

        Or more recently, HP and their Instant Ink, where your printer is bricked unless you sign up for their ink subscription service: https://www.tomsguide.com/news/hp-instant-ink

        And then there’s Sun and their HostID, where a dead clock module wipes out the ID needed to validate software licenses. The only way out is to pay Sun to image one and mail it to you (or know the trick to configure it yourself): http://www.obsolyte.com/sunFAQ/faq_nvram.html

        1. Yeah, but these are all different. That’s market segmentation, or something. My scope, for instance, comes with all the features installed and you just need to type in a code, once you’ve paid up, to activate them. That’s a “golden screwdriver”.

          Here, we’re talking about machines that throw intenionally vague and unpredictable error messages in order to generate repair traffic. I don’t think that IBM mainframes were doing _that_ back in the day.

          I went looking for some clothes washers that I remember being reputed to fail in order to provide keep the authorized repairmen in work, but I couldn’t find any. Hence my [citation needed].

    1. If you buy something, you have an expectation to be able to use it. If it fails frequently, use should be able to return it, for repair/replacement. Those that are handy with tools, there should be no question about them opening it up, and poking around, possibly doing their own repairs/modifications. They bought it, they own it, and they expect it to work. The only problem for the manufacturer, is that it’s a niche market. Not and endless stream of consumers of their product. They either need to keep selling to their existing customers, or make money on parts and service. They can only price the machine so high, before a customers are going to look at useful life, and how quickly it pays for itself, and into the pure profit zone. Broken machine, no sales. Repair bill, reduced profits. Pretty much extortion, share the wealth, or find a different company, different machine.

    2. Well, I would say that Kytch is acting as the Robin hood here. They made the NDA to stymie McDonald’s attempts at stopping them, and they have to lawyer up to enforce their protections against being forced out of their role. We wish they wouldn’t have to do this, but that’s the terrible world we live in. A Robin hood with a lawyer is better than a Robin hood on his own.

  3. I don’t know if this is the case in this instance, but this is what it will always look like when financing and technology collide. I.e. a tech-version of selling razor blades vs razors. But that’s always been McDonald’s operational motto: a business that is leveraged by long-term revenue tails and financing wins.

    While I agree completely with right-to-repair, one should not leave out the opportunity for business cases that sell a device at a discount, or even give it away, in exchange for a long term revenue stream. How to make the two mesh is something where the real issue is, and I seriously doubt we’ll ever find a good balance. But a good start would be for businesses to be up-front about situations that are intentionally made to support a tailing revenue stream, instead of trying to hide the ball.

    1. I’d feel better about that being a lease with an inclusive service agreement rather than a sale. Selling these things given the expected business model just seems weird.

      Seems like a lease would let you figure the numbers up front and be a bit more honest about the type of business agreement your entering into.

  4. Instead of worrying how the Kytch device works internally,Taylor should just put a device between it and the machine, and see what it _does_.

    This may not be the story it appears to be. There may be some excess credulousness being granted to Taylor and their need to know something they claim not to know. Surely, having designed the machine, they know what is going on already. So that is not their reason for wanting to mess around with the Kytch device. It seems likely that their sole interest in taking that device apart is to get some sort of evidence to use in a lawsuit against Kytch, in which case it is perfectly normal that Kytch is using their contracts to protect themselves. That they’re having success at protecting themselves in this normal, legal way seems to actually favor Kytch as being the “good guys” here.

  5. Here (link below) is a live map site called “mcbroken” that seems to show all the broken McDonald’s “Frozen Treat” machines in the U.S. There are some statistics too, like as of my post time 9.99% of all machines in the U.S. are broken as are 21.82% of the machines in Dallas. The machine in my neighborhood McDonald’s has been broken for a very long time, and the map shows it. Unfortunately, there’s no explanation about how the map works.


  6. While I was studying i worked at McDonald’s for around 5 years and was in charge of Maintenance.

    The soft serve machines are designed to be bullet proof and most down time would come from “user error” or a power interruption that would trigger the machine in to a heat treat cycle.

    It was possible to bypass the heat treat cycle by fooling the machine in to thinking it had been though the maintenance cleaning cycle.
    This involves removing the front panel where the frozen goodness flows through and selecting a few things in the menu in the correct order before screwing the front panel back on and cleaning up all the ice cream that had escaped.

    The freezing chamber is pressurized from a pump in the top tank so if you’re not familiar with the maintenance procedures you do risk an almighty creamy explosion. Used to have CCTV footage saved from a night shift manager who accidentally unleashed the milky volcano throughout the front counter and all over himself.

  7. The McDonalds in the small town I live in does NOT have one of these Taylor ice cream machines. When the original franchisees opened the store, they’d bought a refurbished, used machine made in 1979. That made it around 13~15 years old at the time.

    The two guys who opened this store found themselves boxed in, no available locations to expand. But an opportunity came available to purchase several franchises in another part of the country so they packed up and left, selling this store to the franchisee who already owned most of the others in the area.

    Did he buy a new ice cream machine to replace the old one that was so frequently breaking down. Of course not!

    It has been rebuilt a time or two, given upgrades like how the Army has refurbished old A-10 Warthogs. It’s got fancy controls and digital displays etc. instead of the original mechanical knobs and switches.

    But at its core still beats the 1979 vintage heart. That has been a serious problem a few times with some parts that have not been manufactured for many years.

    The worst was when the machine broke down *weeks* prior to the 2017 solar eclipse, with this town sitting precisely in the middle of the path of totality. The summer was HOT. McDonald’s customers could not get ice cream or milk shakes.

    One would think the store owner would finally shove the old machine off to the scrapyard and buy one that was at least made in the 1990’s and refurbished.

    Noooo. Nope. Absolutely NOT! He wouldn’t even rent one for the week around eclipse weekend. The fool had to have lost so much in ice cream and milk shake sales that week he likely could have bought a brand new machine. Nope, he just had to wait for someone to dig up a good one of the obsolete part the old machine needed. The eclipse was the biggest thing that has ever happened to this town and likely will never be topped for the number of people who came here, and the McDonald’s owner just couldn’t get it through his thick head that having ice cream and milkshakes for that momentous event was an absolute necessity. The independent burger joint a couple of blocks away sold a massive number of shakes and ice cream cones.

    How dense can this guy be? The soda fountain in the lobby was installed without an ice maker on it. Employees had to lug big buckets of ice from the ice maker in the back of the store to fill its hopper several times a day. He would not spend the money on an ice maker.

    But one day I was there having lunch when the owner showed up and I got to talk to him about some things, and I mentioned the lack of an ice maker and he said something about how much it would cost. I replied “How much will it cost for the insurance payout and workmen’s comp when one of your employees falls off the chair while filling the ice hopper? Or if one of them slips and dumps a bucket of ice into the fryers and gets 3rd degree oil burns?* How much productive time are your employees losing daily while filling the ice hopper?” Not long after that, the lobby fountain had a new ice maker sitting atop it.

    *Someone had already come really close to doing that when he slipped on some spilled oil in front of the fryers while carrying a bucket of ice to the lobby.

  8. And do we think voters should have the right to have voting machines that process their votes inspected and analysed to ensure they are not compromised? Or is that still a forbidden opinion on HaD?

  9. I recently factory resetted an e-ink reader (Crema Touch), and it no longer works because the manufacturer took down their auth server, causing the reader to crash during the initial configuration stage. Now I have to reverse engineer it to get it working again. This is apparantly a known issue, but no one is working on it.

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