The Glaring Flaws We Need to Fix in the Internet of Things

Supposedly helpful appliances are failing us all

TThe Internet of Things arrived with a bang a few years ago, and it feels like we haven’t quite recovered. Everyday appliances are Bluetooth and Wi-Fi-enabled by default, even when you don’t need them to be. (Smart shoes that lose the ability to lace up when the connected app goes down, anybody?) Many of these devices work no better than their offline alternatives, and you effectively give manufacturers carte blanche to eavesdrop on your usage habits when you buy them. And if you do buy a connected device, you can rest assured it won’t work perfectly forever.

There are countless examples of banal “smart” devices gone horribly wrong. Mattel built an internet-connected Barbie doll that was used by hackers to spy on children and say awful things. Nest cameras and thermostats have been used in domestic abuse cases. Simple software updates can go horribly wrong, bricking your thermostat or removing features you rely on.

I’ve seen it all. I purchased a smart thermostat, Tado, which once went ballistic when my internet went down. Apparently unsure of what to do without a connection, it pumped the heat up. We woke up to a 95°F house and a thermostat that refused to relent until we physically disconnected the boiler from the wall. When my sleep tracker’s parent company, Sense, went out of business, I was left with a very nice $200 paperweight and no sleep tracking, while the device’s lights spun on sadly, unable to reach its servers. I’ve spent hours of my life updating light bulbs.

Tado was probably just trying to help cover its own costs, but it ended up feeling like a recurring microtransaction for your house.

The core problem is that adding the internet to a device introduces a ton of new complexities, and most companies that make those devices aren’t equipped to deal with them. On top of basic electronics, they’re now dealing with processors, connectivity, firmware, iOS and Android apps, and eternally updating software ecosystems. That infinitely increases the work and skills required to make a coherent product that lasts. I know, because I’ve worked at one of these companies.

Yes, hardware is hard, but the combination of hardware and user-controlled apps is a nightmare. By building an internet-enabled stovetop, a more than 100-year-old company like General Electric now needs to consider:

  • The hardware implementation
  • Firmware development and testing
  • iOS/Android app development and testing
  • User account management
  • A cloud backend, what data is stored, and how
  • Remote device updates
  • Security patches
  • How long the servers are expected to operate for

One look at this list should make you pause and think: How is any of this sustainable for individual products? The reality is that it often isn’t, and these realizations only arrive when the product is on the market, suddenly requiring an emergency update because the latest iOS update causes the app to crash endlessly.

There’s very little to point to in the way of successful business models in the Internet of Things. The Nest thermostat sitting on my wall has been there for three years, quietly chatting with a server and relying on the internet to function, without me paying a single additional dollar for its ongoing services. My Philips Hue bulbs have functioned for the same amount of time, and the Sonos speakers for even longer, but whether or not I’ll still be able to use those speakers in 10 years is another issue entirely — again, because of all the basic upkeep that the company will need to commit to. Products from smaller companies, like that Sense sleep tracker, have an even bleaker outlook.

The servers required to drive all of this connectivity, the data captured, and the insights generated are not cheap. Even a small startup with 5,000 pieces of connected hardware out in the world could quickly spend thousands of dollars a month to host, maintain, and secure that infrastructure. As we’ve repeatedly seen in the video game industry, when the servers go offline, the purchases we assume were permanently ours suddenly stop functioning.

And when companies do manage to future-proof themselves, the efforts tend to feel sleazy. Tado — the company that makes the thermostat that tried to roast me — in 2018 decided its geolocation based “smart” heating service would require a monthly subscription payment after it was free for years. Tado was probably just trying to help cover its own costs, but it ended up feeling like a recurring microtransaction for our house.

A quick look at the manufacturers of the devices I have in my home showed that zero of them are willing to publicly commit to support continued functionality for a specific amount of time. Even Apple has argued it only needs to support a given iPhone for one year.

As the technology in your connected devices ages, it may become too expensive or problematic to maintain. Executives — who may not have even be working at the companies when the products were introduced — may decide switching it off is easier than fixing it when it comes down to dollars and cents.

There’s still time to show the connected home industry that we expect better by voting with our wallets. If you’re considering a smart device, only purchase it if there’s a commitment to long-term functionality or evidence that the products will work regardless of its ability to connect to a server. More often than not, the manufacturer won’t commit to a certain lifespan, so it’s worth asking yourself if the benefits of connectivity outweigh the risks that it might go offline years earlier than a nonsmart alternative.

A simple rule of thumb: If a device maker isn’t forthcoming about how long it’ll maintain a device, don’t buy it. If it won’t say anything specific about the data it collects, don’t allow it onto your network.

This requires more work on your end, sure. But if we don’t collectively reject these business models, our smart homes will become hellscapes where our devices demand more money, spy on us, shut down entirely, or, well, cook us alive. Take it from me.

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. UX Manager @ Shopify.

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