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brick

verb [transitive] informal

to cause a mobile device (e.g. mobile phone, tablet computer) to stop working by updating or installing software on it

brick

noun [countable] informal

a mobile device which no longer works after a software update or installation

'My Verizon Wireless Motorola Droid phone has been replaced ten times under warranty in less than two years. Reasons include an Android update that bricked the phone …'

Consumerist 28th May 2013

'I love that phone but one "reset to factory settings" later and my phone is a brick.'

web forum post 23rd June 2013

Have you ever had the experience of taking something you own, a pair of curtains, a kettle, a lawnmower, and doing something to it, purportedly to improve its condition, but ending up with something which isn't as good as what you started out with? The washed curtains have shrunk, the de-scaled kettle no longer boils, the serviced lawnmower won't start!

the term is usually used in the context of mobile phones, but it's also possible to brick other devices, such as tablet or desktop computers and even games consoles

In the tech-centred world in which we live, it's inevitable that electronic devices might also be periodically subjected to a bit of an overhaul, but what if our attempts at maintenance or improvement leave them similarly worse for wear? This is the circumstance behind an action now described by the verb brick. And a bricked device is, unfortunately, a useless device.

The transitive verb brick refers to the undesirable action of causing an electronic device to stop working because of something you've done to the software, usually when updating its operating system or adding a new application. Though the term is usually used in the context of mobile phones, it's also possible to brick other devices, such as tablet or desktop computers and even games consoles. Devices are often bricked when there's an interruption to an update procedure, perhaps because of power failure or because the user inadvertently does something which affects it. Such interruptions can partially overwrite or corrupt what is known as firmware, software which is integral to the device and without which it may not properly function.

The verb brick often appears in the passive form, a syntactic realization which abstracts the responsibility away from frustrated device users, e.g. My phone got bricked when I downloaded a system update. A corresponding participle adjective bricked is also quite common, e.g. a bricked phone. The noun homonym brick is used to refer to a device which is accidentally rendered inoperable in this way, especially if it's been damaged beyond repair.

Though the action of bricking is frustrating and quite clearly undesirable, it can sometimes be reversed. Firmware can sometimes be reloaded or other software developed to counteract the effects, a concept described as unbricking. There is unfortunately no catch-all method here – if a device is to be unbricked, it usually requires a bespoke solution.

Interestingly enough, bricking does have a potentially useful application – if a mobile phone is reported stolen, then it can be blocked from use in the wrong hands by being bricked. This is usually achieved by blocking the unique identification code which identifies it as a valid device and allows access to the network.

Background – brick

There's been evidence of informal use of the word brick in this sense since the mid-2000s, the idea being that the device's lack of functionality makes it no more useful than a brick. This usage was possibly inspired by the slightly earlier use of brick to refer to outdated or particularly unfashionable-looking mobile phones, phones that were large, bulky and block-shaped, therefore resembling a 'brick' (I remember them well!).

The word brick, dating back to the early 15th century, has been through various incarnations in its lifetime, swinging between positive and negative connotations in its metaphoric use. On the more positive side, for example, an informal use which dates back to the 1800s and was popular during the forties and fifties is brick in reference to a dependable, helpful person, though this now sounds rather old-fashioned.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 27th August 2013.

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