Opinion by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Nest’s Revolv and the Internet of Broken Things

Today, it’s consumers being hit by broken promises from IoT vendors. Tomorrow, it will be businesses. Fortunately, there is way to make things better.

Opinion by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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When Google’s Nest acquired Revolv in 2014, it was buying what was thought of as the Rosetta Stone of the Internet of Things (IoT). Revolv enabled users and vendors to connect their gear together regardless of their connection protocols, from Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to ZigBee and Z-Wav.

Consumers who had bought Revolv’s $300 device might have felt a bit queasy when the first thing that Nest did with Revolv was to discontinue the product. Things would only get worse. Now they have.

This month, Nest announced that the remaining Revolv connected-home hubs will not be supported beyond mid-May. “We can’t allocate resources to Revolv anymore and we have to shut down the service,” the company’s founders said on the Revolv website. “As of May 15, 2016, your Revolv hub and app will no longer work.”

Wow. My smart home feels pretty dumb now.

Vendors stop supporting devices and software all the time. But bricking a pricey, two-year-old device is a new low.

The decision, which is ultimately traceable to Alphabet, Google’s umbrella company, is beyond my understanding. In fact, because there is an alternative to making Revolv devices completely unusable that would still allow Nest to walk away from supporting them, I find it indefensible.

It doesn’t seem like good business to rile your customers as much as this move has done, and it’s truly shortsighted to send a message to the world that the IoT is little more than a con. Just take a look at what Revolv customer Arlo Gilbert had to say on Medium: “Is the era of IoT bringing an end to the concept of ownership? Are we just buying intentionally temporary hardware? It feels like it. I own a Commodore 64 that still works.”

Good questions. The answer: Yes, theIoT is bringing an end to device ownership. Yes, your hardware is temporary. Welcome to 2016.

Revolv is an extreme case, but look at a far more widely used device, the iPhone 4.

Gilbert mused, “Imagine if Apple put out a new policy that not only won’t they replace the device for defects, but they will actually be bricking your phone 12 months after purchase.” I don’t have to imagine that because Apple has done this to a certain extent already (though it has taken more than 12 months to do so and iPhone 4’s are not, strictly speaking, bricked). You can still use an iPhone 4; you just can’t run iOS 8 or higher on it. If you keep using one, I wouldn’t give a plugged nickel for your safety from hackers.

Revolv devices, though, are transforming from useful IoT protocol translators to odd-looking decorative items that are pointless to plug in. That is because they cannot do anything at all independent of the cloud service that Nest is shutting down.

So what’s that alternative that I mentioned? My buddy Jason Perlow likes the idea of dead man firmware (DMF). With DMF, when a company decides to drop a product, open-source firmware or software is released that enables users to continue to use the device in stand-alone mode without the need of a cloud service.

DMF isn’t a fantasy. When Aether and its cloud service, Rido, went under, the company released one final firmware update that enabled users to continue to use its Aether Cone streaming speaker as a Bluetooth/Airplay speaker.

Ideal? Heck, no. But, at least customers weren’t left with a useless piece of gear.

As we all come to rely more on IoT devices and cloud services, for better or worse, we need to start insisting that our vendors give us real support guarantees. In the European Union, ““Sellers of consumer goods within the EU are obliged to guarantee the conformity of the goods with a contract, for a period of two years after the delivery of the goods.” We need a version of this law that spells out that both personal and corporate IoT and cloud services are protected.

Laws are fine and dandy, but I trust technology more. I may not be able to truly own many devices today, but I want some protection. Wes Miller, research vice president at Directions on Microsoft, did an excellent job of spelling out the minimum level of openness you should look for in your IoT purchases:

  • All devices must have open APIs or open-source firmware.
  • All devices must have standards-based I/O (Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi) and apps that can work without an Internet connection.

This isn’t perfect, but at least this way, I have the possibility of having real control of my IoT equipment. If you want to protect yourself or your company, you should look to open-source software and open standards. Now, more than ever, they’re the only way to have real ownership.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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