How hacking McDonald's ice cream machines left a couple out in the cold

This has been one of the most interesting tech stories I’ve read this year. It’s all about Jeremy O’Sullivan and his partner, Melissa Nelson, who hacked into McDonald’s ice cream machines to try and fix them (if you weren’t aware, they are infamously broken all the time).

[…] 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.

But their ingenuity wasn’t welcomed with open arms; it may have involved closed surveillance:

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 to 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.

From a cynical, capitalist perspective, I can see why Taylor wouldn’t want their products fixed easily: they want to retain business from one of the biggest companies in the history of mankind*. McDonald’s relies on Taylor to fix their machines and Taylor has kept the solution secret as not to let anyone encroach on their retainer. Except two people did and it could have been anyone with the effort and expertise that Jeremy O’Sullivan and Melissa Nelson had. What’s more: it’s bad for McDonald’s to have to depend on a third-party that can charge what they like and fix their products’ issues when they like. I dunno, maybe this is karma for the Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants lawsuit.

*According to the same Wired article, “Taylor’s notoriously finicky and fragile ice cream machines are used by practically every major fast-food chain, including most of McDonald’s 13,000-plus US restaurants and tens of thousands more internationally.”

Update: the couple are now suing McDonald’s. For $900m.

Update 2: Hackaday profiled iFixit and Public Knowledge’s challenge to the manufacturer behind McDonald’s ice cream machines to make them easy to diagnose and repair

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