A new feature by Andy Greenberg for Wired on the bizarre fight over diagnostic/control tools for McDonald's soft-serve machines is a fantastic, fascinating look at the intersection of Right to Repair with hardware hacking, corporatism, and franchising.
McDonald's ice-cream machines are notoriously finicky, so much so that people use bots to determine whether your local McD's machines are busted (5-16% of the machines are broken at any time)
There's a reason these machines go down all the time: they are absurdly mechanically complex, designed to do overnight repastueruizations on leftover ice-cream mix, unlike less complex machines that have to be drained and cleaned every day, at high labor and wastage costs.
There's a tradeoff: the machines are *much* more complex and finicky.
Not only do they fail if the reservoirs are outside of a narrow tolerance, they still have to be disassembled for weekly cleaning, and are *much* harder to reassemble.
Moreover, that maintenance is performed by McDonald's employees, and thanks to low pay and high turnover, those workers are often both very young and very new to the job. Put it all together and it's easy to see why the machines are busted so often.
But that's not the whole story: it turns out that all of this is vastly exacerbated by the repair-hostile design of the machines. When they do break down, they throw cryptic errors, necessitating an expensive service call.
This means that franchisees pay through the nose when their machines break *and* they don't get feedback on what they can do differently to prevent more service-calls in the future. The tale of this user-hostility is the crux of Greenberg's piece.
The machines are made by Taylor, a giant kitchen supply company that also supplies things like grills to McDonald's franchises. Their distributors get paid every time they do a service call, and the franchisees are pretty sure McD's is getting a cut.
That's where Kytch comes in. It's a tech startup that spun out of Frobot, a company that built automated enclosures for Taylor's froyo machines that were supposed to eliminate labor costs by creating fully self-serve systems.
The gadget itself was superbly engineered, thanks, no doubt, to its pedigree: in commercializing the Kytch, its inventors teamed up with legendary hardware hacker and digital freedom fighter Andrew "bunnie" Huang, whose every device is a perfect marvel.
Huang describes Kytch as a huge leap in the control systems for the Taylor machines, which were mired in the "dark ages" of 50-year-old technology.
Adding a Raspberry Pi-based controller took the machines from the late mechanical age to the late digital age in one step.
But this reformation met a counter-reformation. McDonald's and Taylor teamed up to crush Kytch. Taylor engaged in all kinds of skullduggery to acquire a Kytch unit and then rolled out a (less capable, more lucrative, more extractive) competitor.
(The company swears it didn't rip off the Kytch and it's all just a huge coincidence, really.)
But the real muscle came from McDonald's, which owns the land underneath each of its franchisees' restaurants and can take away their restaurants at the stroke of a pen.
McDonald's began to traffick in increasingly unhinged scare-memos, warning that Kytch might steal "confidential data" and that it "creates a potential very serious safety risk for the crew or technician attempting to clean or repair the machine."
It's quite a tale: a clanking, breakdown-prone Rube Goldberg device that's turned into a money-spinner for a giant corporation that values the service charges more than it rues its disappointed customers.
A pair of scrappy inventors and a legendary hardware wizard who transport this gadget half a century forward in one fell swoop - and who get destroyed by the corporate behemoth through a mix of scare-stories about maimed teenage shake-jockeys and eviction threats.
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