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5G phones are here but there’s no rush to upgrade

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This year’s Mobile World Congress — the CES for Android device makers — was awash with 5G handsets.

The world’s No.1 smartphone seller by marketshare, Samsung, got out ahead with a standalone launch event in San Francisco, showing off two 5G devices, just before fast-following Android rivals popped out their own 5G phones at launch events across Barcelona this week.

We’ve rounded up all these 5G handset launches here. Prices range from an eye-popping $2,600 for Huawei’s foldable phabet-to-tablet Mate X — and an equally eye-watering $1,980 for Samsung’s Galaxy Fold; another 5G handset that bends — to a rather more reasonable $680 for Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 3 5G, albeit the device is otherwise mid-tier. Other prices for 5G phones announced this week remain tbc.

Android OEMs are clearly hoping the hype around next-gen mobile networks can work a little marketing magic and kick-start stalled smartphone growth. Especially with reports suggesting Apple won’t launch a 5G iPhone until at least next year. So 5G is a space Android OEMs alone get to own for a while.

Chipmaker Qualcomm, which is embroiled in a bitter patent battle with Apple, was also on stage in Barcelona to support Xiaomi’s 5G phone launch — loudly claiming the next-gen tech is coming fast and will enhance “everything”.

“We like to work with companies like Xiaomi to take risks,” lavished Qualcomm’s president Cristiano Amon upon his hosts, using 5G uptake to jibe at Apple by implication. “When we look at the opportunity ahead of us for 5G we see an opportunity to create winners.”

Despite the heavy hype, Xiaomi’s on stage demo — which it claimed was the first live 5G video call outside China — seemed oddly staged and was not exactly lacking in latency.

“Real 5G — not fake 5G!” finished Donovan Sung, the Chinese OEM’s director of product management. As a 5G sales pitch it was all very underwhelming. Much more ‘so what’ than ‘must have’.

Whether 5G marketing hype alone will convince consumers it’s past time to upgrade seems highly unlikely.

Phones sell on features rather than connectivity per se, and — whatever Qualcomm claims — 5G is being soft-launched into the market by cash-constrained carriers whose boom times lie behind them, i.e. before over-the-top players had gobbled their messaging revenues and monopolized consumer eyeballs.

All of which makes 5G an incremental consumer upgrade proposition in the near to medium term.

Use-cases for the next-gen network tech, which is touted as able to support speeds up to 100x faster than LTE and deliver latency of just a few milliseconds (as well as connecting many more devices per cell site), are also still being formulated, let alone apps and services created to leverage 5G.

But selling a network upgrade to consumers by claiming the killer apps are going to be amazing but you just can’t show them any yet is as tough as trying to make theatre out of a marginally less janky video call.

“5G could potentially help [spark smartphone growth] in a couple of years as price points lower, and availability expands, but even that might not see growth rates similar to the transition to 3G and 4G,” suggests Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, writing in a blog post discussing Samsung’s strategy with its latest device launches.

“This is not because 5G is not important, but because it is incremental when it comes to phones and it will be other devices that will deliver on experiences, we did not even think were possible. Consumers might end up, therefore, sharing their budget more than they did during the rise of smartphones.”

The ‘problem’ for 5G — if we can call it that — is that 4G/LTE networks are capably delivering all the stuff consumers love right now: Games, apps and video. Which means that for the vast majority of consumers there’s simply no reason to rush to shell out for a ‘5G-ready’ handset. Not if 5G is all the innovation it’s got going for it.

LG V50 ThinQ 5G with a dual screen accessory for gaming

Use cases such as better AR/VR are also a tough sell given how weak consumer demand has generally been on those fronts (with the odd branded exception).

The barebones reality is that commercial 5G networks are as rare as hen’s teeth right now, outside a few limited geographical locations in the U.S. and Asia. And 5G will remain a very patchy patchwork for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, it may take a very long time indeed to achieve nationwide coverage in many countries, if 5G even ends up stretching right to all those edges. (Alternative technologies do also exist which could help fill in gaps where the ROI just isn’t there for 5G.)

So again consumers buying phones with the puffed up idea of being able to tap into 5G right here, right now (Qualcomm claimed 2019 is going to be “the year of 5G!”) will find themselves limited to just a handful of urban locations around the world.

Analysts are clear that 5G rollouts, while coming, are going to be measured and targeted as carriers approach what’s touted as a multi-industry-transforming wireless technology cautiously, with an eye on their capex and while simultaneously trying to figure out how best to restructure their businesses to engage with all the partners they’ll need to forge business relations with, across industries, in order to successfully sell 5G’s transformative potential to all sorts of enterprises — and lock onto “the sweep spot where 5G makes sense”.

Enterprise rollouts therefore look likely to be prioritized over consumer 5G — as was the case for 5G launches in South Korea at the back end of last year.

“4G was a lot more driven by the consumer side and there was an understanding that you were going for national coverage that was never really a question and you were delivering on the data promise that 3G never really delivered… so there was a gap of technology that needed to be filled. With 5G it’s much less clear,” says Gartner’s Sylvain Fabre, discussing the tech’s hype and the reality with TechCrunch ahead of MWC.

“4G’s very good, you have multiple networks that are Gbps or more and that’s continuing to increase on the downlink with multiple carrier aggregation… and other densification schemes. So 5G doesn’t… have as gap as big to fill. It’s great but again it’s applicability of where it’s uniquely positioned is kind of like a very narrow niche at the moment.”

“It’s such a step change that the real power of 5G is actually in creating new business models using network slicing — allocation of particular aspects of the network to a particular use-case,” Forrester analyst Dan Bieler also tells us. “All of this requires some rethinking of what connectivity means for an enterprise customer or for the consumer.

“And telco sales people, the telco go-to-market approach is not based on selling use-cases, mostly — it’s selling technologies. So this is a significant shift for the average telco distribution channel to go through. And I would believe this will hold back a lot of the 5G ambitions for the medium term.”

To be clear, carriers are now actively kicking the tyres of 5G, after years of lead-in hype, and grappling with technical challenges around how best to upgrade their existing networks to add in and build out 5G.

Many are running pilots and testing what works and what doesn’t, such as where to place antennas to get the most reliable signal and so on. And a few have put a toe in the water with commercial launches (globally there are 23 networks with “some form of live 5G in their commercial networks” at this point, according to Fabre.)

But at the same time 5G network standards are yet to be fully finalized so the core technology is not 100% fully baked. And with it being early days “there’s still a long way to go before we have a real significant impact of 5G type of services”, as Bieler puts it. 

There’s also spectrum availability to factor in and the cost of acquiring the necessary spectrum. As well as the time required to clear and prepare it for commercial use. (On spectrum, government policy is critical to making things happen quickly (or not). So that’s yet another factor moderating how quickly 5G networks can be built out.)

And despite some wishful thinking industry noises at MWC this week — calling for governments to ‘support digitization at scale’ by handing out spectrum for free (uhhhh, yeah right) — that’s really just whistling into the wind.

Rolling out 5G networks is undoubtedly going to be very expensive, at a time when carriers’ businesses are already faced with rising costs (from increasing data consumption) and subdued revenue growth forecasts.

“The world now works on data” and telcos are “at core of this change”, as one carrier CEO — Singtel’s Chua Sock Koong — put it in an MWC keynote in which she delved into the opportunities and challenges for operators “as we go from traditional connectivity to a new age of intelligent connectivity”.

Chua argued it will be difficult for carriers to compete “on the basis of connectivity alone” — suggesting operators will have to pivot their businesses to build out standalone business offerings selling all sorts of b2b services to support the digital transformations of other industries as part of the 5G promise — and that’s clearly going to suck up a lot of their time and mind for the foreseeable future.

In Europe alone estimates for the cost of rolling out 5G range between €300BN and €500BN (~$340BN-$570BN), according to Bieler. Figures that underline why 5G is going to grow slowly, and networks be built out thoughtfully; in the b2b space this means essentially on a case-by-case basis.

Simply put carriers must make the economics stack up. Which means no “huge enormous gambles with 5G”. And omnipresent ROI pressure pushing them to try to eke out a premium.

“A lot of the network equipment vendors have turned down the hype quite a bit,” Bieler continues. “If you compare this to the hype around 3G many years ago or 4G a couple of years ago 5G definitely comes across as a soft launch. Sort of an evolutionary type of technology. I have not come across a network equipment vendors these days who will say there will be a complete change in everything by 2020.”

On the consumer pricing front, carriers have also only just started to grapple with 5G business models. One early example is TC parent Verizon’s 5G home service — which positions the next-gen wireless tech as an alternative to fixed line broadband with discounts if you opt for a wireless smartphone data plan as well as 5G broadband.

From the consumer point of view, the carrier 5G business model conundrum boils down to: What is my carrier going to charge me for 5G? And early adopters of any technology tend to get stung on that front.

Although, in mobile, price premiums rarely stick around for long as carriers inexorably find they must ditch premiums to unlock scale — via consumer-friendly ‘all you can eat’ price plans.

Still, in the short term, carriers look likely to experiment with 5G pricing and bundles — basically seeing what they can make early adopters pay. But it’s still far from clear that people will pay a premium for better connectivity alone. And that again necessitates caution. 

5G bundled with exclusive content might be one way carriers try to extract a premium from consumers. But without huge and/or compelling branded content inventory that risks being a too niche proposition too. And the more carriers split their 5G offers the more consumers might feel they don’t need to bother, and end up sticking with 4G for longer.

It’ll also clearly take time for a 5G ‘killer app’ to emerge in the consumer space. And such an app would likely need to still be able to fallback on 4G, again to ensure scale. So the 5G experience will really need to be compellingly different in order for the tech to sell itself.

On the handset side, 5G chipset hardware is also still in its first wave. At MWC this week Qualcomm announced a next-gen 5G modem, stepping up from last year’s Snapdragon 855 chipset — which it heavily touted as architected for 5G (though it doesn’t natively support 5G).

If you’re intending to buy and hold on to a 5G handset for a few years there’s thus a risk of early adopter burn at the chipset level — i.e. if you end up with a device with a suckier battery life vs later iterations of 5G hardware where more performance kinks have been ironed out.

Intel has warned its 5G modems won’t be in phones until next year — so, again, that suggests no 5G iPhones before 2020. And Apple is of course a great bellwether for mainstream consumer tech; the company only jumps in when it believes a technology is ready for prime time, rarely sooner. And if Cupertino feels 5G can wait, that’s going to be equally true for most consumers.

Zooming out, the specter of network security (and potential regulation) now looms very large indeed where 5G is concerned, thanks to East-West trade tensions injecting a strange new world of geopolitical uncertainty into an industry that’s never really had to grapple with this kind of business risk before.

Chinese kit maker Huawei’s rotating chairman, Guo Ping, used the opportunity of an MWC keynote to defend the company and its 5G solutions against U.S. claims its network tech could be repurposed by the Chinese state as a high tech conduit to spy on the West — literally telling delegates: “We don’t do bad things” and appealing to them to plainly to: “Please choose Huawei!”

Huawei rotating resident, Guo Ping, defends the security of its network kit on stage at MWC 2019

When established technology vendors are having to use a high profile industry conference to plead for trust it’s strange and uncertain times indeed.

In Europe it’s possible carriers’ 5G network kit choices could soon be regulated as a result of security concerns attached to Chinese suppliers. The European Commission suggested as much this week, saying in another MWC keynote that it’s preparing to step in try to prevent security concerns at the EU Member State level from fragmenting 5G rollouts across the bloc.

In an on stage Q&A Orange’s chairman and CEO, Stéphane Richard, couched the risk of destabilization of the 5G global supply chain as a “big concern”, adding: “It’s the first time we have such an important risk in our industry.”

Geopolitical security is thus another issue carriers are having to factor in as they make decisions about how quickly to make the leap to 5G. And holding off on upgrades, while regulators and other standards bodies try to figure out a trusted way forward, might seem the more sensible thing to do — potentially stalling 5G upgrades in the meanwhile.

Given all the uncertainties there’s certainly no reason for consumers to rush in.

Smartphone upgrade cycles have slowed globally for a reason. Mobile hardware is mature because it’s serving consumers very well. Handsets are both powerful and capable enough to last for years.

And while there’s no doubt 5G will change things radically in future, including for consumers — enabling many more devices to be connected and feeding back data, with the potential to deliver on the (much hyped but also still pretty nascent) ‘smart home’ concept — the early 5G sales pitch for consumers essentially boils down to more of the same.

“Over the next ten years 4G will phase out. The question is how fast that happens in the meantime and again I think that will happen slower than in early times because [with 5G] you don’t come into a vacuum, you don’t fill a big gap,” suggests Gartner’s Fabre. “4G’s great, it’s getting better, wi’fi’s getting better… The story of let’s build a big national network to do 5G at scale [for all] that’s just not happening.”

“I think we’ll start very, very simple,” he adds of the 5G consumer proposition. “Things like caching data or simply doing more broadband faster. So more of the same.

“It’ll be great though. But you’ll still be watching Netflix and maybe there’ll be a couple of apps that come up… Maybe some more interactive collaboration or what have you. But we know these things are being used today by enterprises and consumers and they’ll continue to be used.”

So — in sum — the 5G mantra for the sensible consumer is really ‘wait and see’.

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Meet Thistle, the startup that wants to secure billions of IoT devices

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For more than two decades, Window Snyder has built security into products at some of the biggest companies in the world. Now, she’s unveiling her own company that aims to bake security into billions of connected devices made by other companies.

San Francisco-based Thistle Technologies said on Thursday that it received $2.5 million in seed funding from True Ventures. The startup is creating tools that will help manufacturers build security into connected devices from the ground up.

IoT, hackers’ low-hanging fruit

Printers, ATMs, consumer electronics, automobiles, and similar types of Internet-of-things devices have emerged as some of the biggest targets of malware. Manufacturers typically don’t have the security expertise that companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google have developed over the past 20 years.
The result is billions of devices that ship with vulnerabilities that are preyed upon by profit-driven criminals and nation-state hackers.

“What it takes to build security into products… requires a lot of really specialized skills,” said Snyder, Thistle’s CEO and founder. “You get folks, especially at the devices level, building the same security mechanisms over and over again, reinventing the wheel, and doing it to different levels of resilience.”

Security veteran

Snyder previously served as chief security officer at Square, Mozilla, and Fastly and was chief software security officer at Intel. As a teenager, she was part of a Boston hacker collective before going on to be a consultant at @stake, a security company that employed many of the members of L0pht, another Boston hacker collective. She also spent time at Microsoft working on Windows XP SP2, the update that added a host of security improvements to the OS. Later, she worked on security at Apple.

Thistle will develop frameworks that allow device manufacturers to quickly build reliable and resilient security into their products more quickly than they could do on their own. The company’s initial work will focus on building a platform that delivers security updates to connected devices. Patching devices typically requires reflashing firmware, a process that can be fraught with risk.

“It’s one of the reasons that nobody delivers updates for devices, because the cost of failing an update is so high,” Snyder said. “If you’ve got 100 million devices out there and you’ve got a 1-percent failure rate—which is very, very low for updates—that’s still a million devices that are bricked potentially.”

True Ventures is investing $2.5 million in seed funding to Thistle. The Silicon Valley venture capital firm has provided funding to hundreds of early-stage startups, including Duo Security, the company that provides two-factor authentication and other security services and is now owned by Cisco.

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In epic hack, Signal developer turns the tables on forensics firm Cellebrite

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For years, Israeli digital forensics firm Cellebrite has helped governments and police around the world break into confiscated mobile phones, mostly by exploiting vulnerabilities that went overlooked by device manufacturers. Now, Moxie Marlinspike—the brainchild behind the Signal messaging app—has turned the tables.

On Wednesday, Marlinspike published a post that reported vulnerabilities in Cellebrite software that allowed him to execute malicious code on the Windows computer used to analyze a device. The researcher and software engineer exploited the vulnerabilities by loading specially formatted files that can be embedded into any app installed on the device.

Virtually no limits

“There are virtually no limits on the code that can be executed,” Marlinspike wrote.

He continued:

For example, by including a specially formatted but otherwise innocuous file in an app on a device that is then scanned by Cellebrite, it’s possible to execute code that modifies not just the Cellebrite report being created in that scan, but also all previous and future generated Cellebrite reports from all previously scanned devices and all future scanned devices in any arbitrary way (inserting or removing text, email, photos, contacts, files, or any other data), with no detectable timestamp changes or checksum failures. This could even be done at random, and would seriously call the data integrity of Cellebrite’s reports into question.

Cellebrite provides two software packages: The UFED breaks through locks and encryption protections to collect deleted or hidden data, and separate Physical Analyzer uncovers digital evidence (“trace events”).

To do their job, both pieces of Cellebrite software must parse all kinds of untrusted data stored on the device being analyzed. Typically, software that is this promiscuous undergoes all kinds of security hardening to detect and fix any memory-corruption or parsing vulnerabilities that might allow hackers to execute malicious code.

“Looking at both UFED and Physical Analyzer, though, we were surprised to find that very little care seems to have been given to Cellebrite’s own software security,” Marlinspike wrote. “Industry-standard exploit mitigation defenses are missing, and many opportunities for exploitation are present.”

Compromising integrity

One example of this lack of hardening was the inclusion of Windows DLL files for audio/video conversion software known as FFmpeg. The software was built in 2012 and hasn’t been updated since. Marlinspike said that, in the intervening nine years, FFmpeg has received more than 100 security updates. None of those fixes are included in the FFmpeg software bundled into the Cellebrite products.

Marlinspike included a video that shows UFED as it parses a file he formatted to execute arbitrary code on the Windows device. The payload uses the MessageBox Windows API to display a benign message, but Marlinspike said that “it’s possible to execute any code, and a real exploit payload would likely seek to undetectably alter previous reports, compromise the integrity of future reports (perhaps at random!), or exfiltrate data from the Cellebrite machine.”

Marlinspike said he also found two MSI installer packages that are digitally signed by Apple and appear to have been extracted from the Windows installer for iTunes. Marlinspike questioned if the inclusion constitutes a violation of Apple copyrights. Neither Apple nor Cellebrite provided a comment before this post went live.

Marlinspike said he obtained the Cellebrite gear in a “truly unbelievable coincidence” as he was walking and “saw a small package fall off a truck ahead of me.” The incident does seem truly unbelievable. Marlinspike declined to provide additional details about precisely how he came into possession of the Cellebrite tools.

The vulnerabilities could provide fodder for defense attorneys to challenge the integrity of forensic reports generated using the Cellebrite software. Cellebrite representatives didn’t respond to an email asking if they were aware of the vulnerabilities or had plans to fix them.

“We are of course willing to responsibly disclose the specific vulnerabilities we know about to Cellebrite if they do the same for all the vulnerabilities they use in their physical extraction and other services to their respective vendors, now and in the future,” Marlinspike wrote.

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They hacked McDonald’s ice cream machines—and started a cold war

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Enlarge / The lure of frozen deliciousness that led to uncovering insane techno craziness.

NurPhoto | Getty Images

Of all the mysteries and injustices of the McDonald’s ice cream machine, the one that Jeremy O’Sullivan insists you understand first is its secret passcode.

Press the cone icon on the screen of the Taylor C602 digital ice cream machine, he explains, then tap the buttons that show a snowflake and a milkshake to set the digits on the screen to 5, then 2, then 3, then 1. After that precise series of no fewer than 16 button presses, a menu magically unlocks. Only with this cheat code can you access the machine’s vital signs: everything from the viscosity setting for its milk and sugar ingredients to the temperature of the glycol flowing through its heating element to the meanings of its many sphinxlike error messages.

“No one at McDonald’s or Taylor will explain why there’s a secret, undisclosed menu,” O’Sullivan wrote in one of the first, cryptic text messages I received from him earlier this year.

As O’Sullivan says, this menu isn’t documented in any owner’s manual for the Taylor digital ice cream machines that are standard equipment in more than 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants across the US and tens of thousands more worldwide. And this opaque user-unfriendliness is far from the only problem with the machines, which have gained a reputation for being absurdly fickle and fragile. Thanks to a multitude of questionable engineering decisions, they’re so often out of order in McDonald’s restaurants around the world that they’ve become a full-blown social media meme. (Take a moment now to search Twitter for “broken McDonald’s ice cream machine” and witness thousands of voices crying out in despair.)

But after years of studying this complex machine and its many ways of failing, O’Sullivan remains most outraged at this notion: That the food-equipment giant Taylor sells the McFlurry-squirting devices to McDonald’s restaurant owners for about $18,000 each, and yet it keeps the machines’ inner workings secret from them. What’s more, Taylor maintains a network of approved distributors that charge franchisees thousands of dollars a year for pricey maintenance contracts, with technicians on call to come and tap that secret passcode into the devices sitting on their counters.

The secret menu reveals a business model that goes beyond a right-to-repair issue, O’Sullivan argues. It represents, as he describes it, nothing short of a milkshake shakedown: Sell franchisees a complicated and fragile machine. Prevent them from figuring out why it constantly breaks. Take a cut of the distributors’ profit from the repairs. “It’s a huge money maker to have a customer that’s purposefully, intentionally blind and unable to make very fundamental changes to their own equipment,” O’Sullivan says. And McDonald’s presides over all of it, he says, insisting on loyalty to its longtime supplier. (Resist the McDonald’s monarchy on decisions like equipment, and the corporation can end a restaurant’s lease on the literal ground beneath it, which McDonald’s owns under its franchise agreement.)

So two years ago, after their own strange and painful travails with Taylor’s devices, 34-year-old O’Sullivan and his partner, 33-year-old Melissa Nelson, began selling a gadget about the size of a small paperback book, which they call Kytch. Install it inside your Taylor ice cream machine and connect it to your Wi-Fi, and it essentially hacks your hostile dairy extrusion appliance and offers access to its forbidden secrets. Kytch acts as a surveillance bug inside the machine, intercepting and eavesdropping on communications between its components and sending them to a far friendlier user interface than the one Taylor intended. The device not only displays all of the machine’s hidden internal data but logs it over time and even suggests troubleshooting solutions, all via the web or an app.

The result, once McDonald’s and Taylor became aware of Kytch’s early success, has been a two-year-long cold war—one that is only now turning hot. At one point, Kytch’s creators believe Taylor hired private detectives to obtain their devices. Taylor recently unveiled its own competing Internet-connected monitoring product. And McDonald’s has gone so far as to send emails to McDonald’s franchisees, warning them that Kytch devices breach a Taylor machine’s “confidential information” and can even cause “serious human injury.”

After watching the efforts of McDonald’s and Taylor decimate their business over the five months since those emails, O’Sullivan and his cofounder are now on the counterattack: The Kytch couple tells WIRED they’re planning to file a lawsuit against some McDonald’s franchisees who they believe are colluding with Taylor by handing over their Kytch devices to the ice cream machine giant and allowing them to be reverse-engineered—a violation of the franchisees’ agreement with Kytch. (Taylor denies obtaining Kytch devices but doesn’t deny trying to gain possession of one or that a Taylor distributor did ultimately access it.) The lawsuit will likely be only the first salvo from Kytch in a mounting, messy legal battle against both Taylor and McDonald’s.

But in his initial messages to me, O’Sullivan mentioned none of the details of this escalating conflict. Instead, with Hamburglar-like slyness, he dared me to pull on a loose thread that he suggested could unravel a vast conspiracy. “I think you could blow this story open by just asking a simple, very reasonable question,” O’Sullivan’s first text messages concluded: “What’s the real purpose of this hidden menu?”

The Ferrari of soft serve?

The standard Taylor digital ice cream machine in a McDonald’s kitchen is “like an Italian sports car,” as one pseudonymous franchisee who uses the Twitter nom de guerre McD Truth described it to me.

When the hundreds of highly engineered components in Taylor’s C602 are working in concert, the machine’s performance is a smooth display of efficiency and power: Like other ice cream machines, it takes in liquid ingredients through a hopper and then freezes them in a spinning barrel, pulling tiny sheets of the frozen mixture off the surface of the barrel’s cold metal with scraper blades, mixing it repeatedly to create the smallest possible ice crystals, and then pushing it through a nozzle into an awaiting cup or cone.

But the ice cream machine Taylor has invented for McDonald’s is special: It has two hoppers and two barrels, each working independently with precise settings, to produce both milkshakes and soft serve simultaneously. It uses a pump, rather than gravity like many other machines, to accelerate the flow of McFlurries and fudge sundaes: McD Truth describes selling 10 ice cream cones a minute during peak sales periods, a feat that’s impossible with other machines.

And while other ice cream machines have to be disassembled and cleaned daily—and any leftover contents discarded—McDonald’s Taylor machines use a daily “heat treatment” process designed to jack up its contents’ temperature to 151 degrees Fahrenheit, pasteurize it for a minimum of 30 minutes, and then refreeze it again in a once-a-night cycle, a modern marvel of hygiene and cost savings.

But in keeping with McD Truth’s Italian sports car analogy, these machines are also temperamental, fragile, and ridiculously overengineered. “They work great as long as everything is 100 percent perfect,” McD Truth writes. “If something isn’t 100 percent, it will cause the machine to fail.” (McDonald’s agreement with franchisees also allows them to use an actual Italian machine, sold by Bologna-based Carpigiani, that McD Truth describes as much better designed. But given that its replacement parts can take a week to arrive from Italy, far fewer restaurants buy it.)

Every two weeks, all of Taylor’s precisely engineered components have to be disassembled and sanitized. Some pieces have to be carefully lubricated. The machine’s parts include no fewer than two dozen rubber and plastic O-rings of different sizes. Leave a single one out, and the pump can fail or liquid ingredients can leak out of the machine. One McDonald’s franchisee’s tech manager told me he’s reassembled Taylor’s ice cream machines more than a hundred times, and had them work on the first try at most 10 of those times. “They’re very, very, very finicky,” he says.

The machine’s automated nightly pasteurization process, rather than make life easier for restaurant managers, has become their biggest albatross: Leave the machine with a bit too much or too little ingredient mixture in its hoppers, accidentally turn it off or unplug it at the wrong moment, or fall victim to myriad other trivial errors or acts of God, and the four-hour pasteurization process fails and offers a generic, inscrutable error message—meaning that the machine won’t work until the entire four hours of heating and freezing repeats, often in the middle of peak ice cream sales hours.

A Kytch device

The result can be hundreds of dollars in sales immediately lost. (Especially, O’Sullivan explains, during “shamrock season,” when McDonald’s offers a St. Patrick’s Day–themed mint-green milkshake that boosts shake sales as much as tenfold. “Shamrock season is a big fucking deal,” O’Sullivan emphasizes.)

Taylor sells a machine with these technical demands to businesses where they’ll ultimately be run by a bored teenager whose fast-food career is measured in weeks. So perhaps it’s no surprise that many McDonald’s restaurants’ ice cream machines seem to be as often broken as not. The website McBroken.com, which uses a bot to automatically attempt to place an online order for ice cream at every McDonald’s in America every 20 to 30 minutes and measures the results, reveals that at any given time over the past two months, somewhere between 5 and 16 percent of all US McDonald’s are unable to sell ice cream. On a typical bad day as I reported this piece, that included one out of five McDonald’s in Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, one out of four in San Francisco, and three out of 10 in New York City.

Plenty of companies have fought against their own customers’ right-to-repair movements, from John Deere’s efforts to prevent farmers from accessing their own tractors’ software to Apple’s efforts to limit who can fix an iPhone. But few of those companies’ products need to be repaired quite so often as McDonald’s ice cream machines. When WIRED reached out to McDonald’s for this story, the company didn’t even attempt to defend the machines’ shambolic performance. “We understand it’s frustrating for customers when they come to McDonald’s for a frozen treat and our shake machines are down—and we’re committed to doing better,” a spokesperson wrote.

On social media, meanwhile, the McDonald’s ice cream meme has come to represent everything disappointing about modern technology, capitalism, and the human condition. When three women in Florida attacked a McDonald’s employee after learning the ice cream machine was broken in 2017, a significant fraction of the Twitter reactions sided with the attackers. McDonald’s itself tweeted from its official account last August that “we have a joke about our soft serve machine but we’re worried it won’t work,” a self-own that received nearly 29,000 likes.

On a recent evening in March, I attempted to tally the number of people who tweeted some version of the joke that they were going to spend their $1,400 Covid stimulus payment to fix their local McDonald’s ice cream machine. I lost count at 200.

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