Unsettled repair tools: The death of the J.A.F. Box

In downtown Kampala, mobile phone technicians working outside of authorized infrastructures rely on third party software repair tools in order to access embedded systems, rewrite firmware and remove SIM locks. This paper describes the sudden failure of a popular repair tool known as the J.A.F. (Just Another Flasher) box in late 2010. The tool had been sabotaged by a rival “team” called MXKey through the embedding malware into an update, which was circulated on GSM Forum and other online technician communities. The conflict played out very publically across these sites as technicians searched in vain for ways to repair their tools, and the J.A.F. and MXKey developers were drawn into recriminating flame wars. Kampalan technicians nicknamed MXKey “the green snake”. Using this case, I discuss three interesting aspects of software repair tools. Firstly, I argue that they never settle into fixity and stability, but rather are deeply entangled in the high-speed cycles of “innovation’ in the mobile market, as new handsets and firmware files are released and incorporated. Technicians make complex judgments about the future longevity of each tool on the market, based on the previous updates released by the developer team. Secondly, in the bellicose world of small developers tools remain radically open to competition. Even seemingly stable tools could be subject to the bite of the green snake. For technicians in Kampala, the upkeep of repair tools involves participating in this community and keeping informed of social relations between developers. Finally, the J.A.F. case offers insights on the situated judgments on when and how technologies die. For technicians, a repair tool’s life is over not when it becomes un-useful, but when it becomes unsupported, as orphaned technologies are unable to future cycles of mobile development.

The talk is available here, along with some wonderful short papers from fellow presenters.