A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 22, 2016

The Internet of Things Has A Dirty Little Secret: It's Not Really Yours

You may buy the device, but you don't own the software that powers it - or the rate at which it may become obsolete. JL

The Verge reports:

When you’re signing up to a free new service, it’s easy to understand the implicit contract: I’m giving something about myself for free in exchange for this, and this might just go away. Buying something that’s attached to your wall, in your light sockets, or even on your person is far more intimate and you expect longevity, but there’s almost no chance it’ll work for as long as your offline gadget did. The tech world moves so fast it’ll be forgotten before the decade is out.
If you pay any attention at all to technology news right now, you might be led to believe that "smart" devices are here to liberate you from your old, dumb objects around your home. Over the last few years the Internet of Things craze has slowly but surely taken hold — and every company you can imagine wants to bring your stuff into a Jetsons-esque future.
I started the Internet of Shit Twitter account a year ago, sensing a trend in the rush to desperately add Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to everything: nobody really knew why any of this stuff was being put online.
Not only are the customers buying smart devices cluelessly roped in, if you ask the companies behind the devices you’ll almost always get a vague pipe dream that doesn’t match the reality of connecting your home’s most crucial devices.
Fridges, washing machines, ovens, thermostats, mattresses, light bulbs, shoes, and even umbrellas: our glorious future of flying cars and convenience was somehow switched out for umbrellas that tweet us when it’s going to rain, and a fridge that live streams its contents. How did the Jetsons become so lame?
When put on a store shelf in front of you, the IoT trap is obvious. If you’re shopping for a thermostat you’ll see two choices: the boring but reliable Honeywell that doesn’t do much more than turn on your heaters, or the slick, shiny iPhone-esque Nest that promises to change the way your home is heated forever by just connecting to the internet.

What would you choose? I can almost guarantee that you’ll end up with a Nest, or at least something similar. It’s only logical, but therein lies the trap: the unsaid things that come hand-in-hand with an internet-connected widget. They weren’t written on the shiny box and you won’t know about them until years down the track.
Consider this: when you bought your humble "dumb" thermostat 10 years ago, you connected it to the wall, programmed it and probably forgot about it. Sure, it was inefficient since it’d sometimes heat your house when you weren’t there, but it worked. Now imagine that same thermostat suddenly stopped working after five years, the LED display blinking back at you "thermostat no longer compatible." So you sit in the cold.
That’s a reality that will unfold one day with internet-connected versions of everything. You’ve heard the horror stories about Samsung Smart TVs slowing down to uselessness with every update, or suddenly getting ads all across the menus before obsolescence, but what happens when it’s actually part of your house?
Well, for one, it means things are less reliable. More than once I’ve come home to an icy house because the internet had gone down, then spent hours trying to fix it only to have the thermostat jammed on 86 degrees until tech support reset my account.
Say Google someday decides that Nest’s drama is a little bit too much for the company to deal with and it offloads it to a company without such deep pockets. That company’s going to look for ways to either reduce costs or extract more money from you — and with smart devices there are plenty of ways to do that.

Firstly, that company could cut support for older devices — turn off the servers that keep those old thermostats running, or simply change the endpoint it connects to so it doesn’t function anymore. Alternatively, the new owner could try to monetize you further by selling what your thermostat knows about you to an advertiser.
You probably think that data is meaningless, but it’s enough to make an advertising network salivate: knowing how warm or cold your house is and how often you’re home is enough information to change the ad-personalization game and tailor some incredibly specific advertising on Facebook.
These scenarios aren’t some far-fetched fantasy, it already happened when Nest acquired a home automation company called Revolv, then decided to quietly leave its customers out in the cold when it couldn’t be bothered servicing its devices anymore.
The hidden costs of running these operations are immense. There are servers to rent, bandwidth to pay for, and salaries to pay. But none of that is mentioned when you buy a gadget off a shelf, and in the majority of cases there’s no way to actually pay for your ongoing use of the product. How are those costs going to be recaptured when you’re paying a one-time fee for the hardware? I can’t wait until my Nest starts asking for an in-app purchase to heat my house one day.
When you’re sitting in front of a computer and find yourself signing up to a free new service, clicking past some long-winded terms and conditions screen, it’s easy to at least understand the implicit contract: I’m giving something about myself away for free in exchange for this, and this service might eventually just go away.
Unlike that scenario, buying something that’s attached to your wall, in your light sockets, or even on your person is far more intimate and you expect longevity, but there’s almost no chance it’ll work for as long as your offline gadget did. The tech world moves so fast it’ll be forgotten before the decade is out.
I’m no saint. I run a parody account that pokes fun at the ever-escalating hilarity of these devices, yet I’ve bought into them frivolously. I have smart speakers, online lightbulbs that need firmware updates, an internet-connected thermostat that’s repeatedly left me freezing in the winter, and smart plugs that apparently can’t figure out how to turn themselves on.
Embarrassingly, as a result, a good chunk of my grown-up life has been spent standing in my living room, cursing at my lights as they refuse to update (or even turn on) while trying to show people who visit just how cool my internet house is.
What we really need from those building the Internet of Things is commitment. Companies should step up and guarantee the longevity of their products, no matter the cost or bind it might put them in. If I buy a thermostat, it should last at least five years — at least enough time for me to start lusting after something else.
Unfortunately so far nobody’s made any such claim. No promises that your Nest, Sonos, Philips Hue, or Amazon Echo will work any longer than Myspace was in fashion, and that’s the biggest concern. When everything’s connected and nobody’s responsible for the consequences, what happens? I can’t wait for awkward sex ads to start appearing on Facebook because of what my connected mattress company sold to some other business.

The lure of these devices when presented against the backdrop of old, offline devices is obvious: they could change your whole life and in some ways for me, they have, but the headaches are only beginning, and selling them as life-changers without commitment is irresponsible, and there’s no transparency about how they could change in the future.
My old devices were so dumb, but in hindsight, that was kind of charming. They didn’t do much, and perhaps that simplicity is really what we need.
As we face the bold new world of every inanimate object coming online, ask yourself this: do you need this now, or can it wait? Until there are commitments or infrastructure to keep it working forever, it’s nothing more than a fad, with bad actors and those seeking short-term profit piling on endlessly.
With time, things will improve and the market will shake out, just as it did with cellular networks and FM radio, but right now the Internet of Things is an awkward teenager, and the simple fact is this: everything you buy is no longer your own.


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