The Internet of Things Almost Starved My Cat

And other perils of the digital age

AA smart pet feeder is a great idea in theory: It can be controlled from your phone, making it simple to schedule feedings and giving you the ability to feed your cat or dog from anywhere in the world.

Except, it turns out, if the device manufacturer’s servers aren’t online. My own smart pet feeder’s maker, Petnet, has struggled with reliability for years — leaving my cat, Mika, hungry on a number of occasions — and if the company were to go out of business, my cat feeder would turn into a very expensive paperweight.

Over a long weekend in February, that’s exactly what happened. An unspecified service outage crippled pet feeders for more than a week, leaving Mika without food when we were out of town.

Mika was rescued by a friend who went over to feed him, but the incident left me wondering how long Petnet would continue to operate the feeder’s service at all and why it depends on a server working to perform basic functionality. The company did not respond to a request for comment about the outage.

It’s not just pet feeders that rely on faraway servers to work properly. Technology has invaded even the most banal objects, making smart gadgets — from connected cars to smart lightbulbs to pet feeders — increasingly difficult to avoid. Each of these “smart” objects requires digital maintenance. If the company decides to stop supporting a device, for whatever reason, the gadget could stop working or stop working well. This might happen after a company goes out of business, faces pressure from investors to start charging for features that were previously free, or decides it’s not profitable to continue updating the code. The effect is the same: You might have purchased it, but you don’t control when you’ll need to replace it.

A visible example arrived in January 2020 when Sonos, a manufacturer of high-end connected speakers, announced it would stop issuing software updates for several of its products in May. A high-end stereo system from the 1990s would likely still work today, but Sonos was no longer willing to provide maintenance for its original ZonePlayers, first-generation Play:5 smart speakers, and other early devices. Those products will stop receiving updates, which means as music services like Spotify and Tidal evolve, their integrations may stop being compatible and refuse to play music.

The Sonos platform requires all speakers in a system to be on the same software version, meaning owners are faced with a choice: stop receiving updates for their newer devices, or remove the unsupported speakers from their audio system, though they should continue to play music — at least until music services make changes that eventually mean the devices don’t work anymore.

To defend the move, Sonos said its older-model speakers were “stretched to their technical limits in terms of processing power.” While it’s tempting to wonder why a speaker needs a powerful processor, Sonos speakers increasingly offer other functionality, such as AirPlay or Google Assistant, which are more taxing to run.

Though Sonos’ decision sparked an outcry, the company is actually one of the more generous when it comes to connected products. Before the January announcement, Sonos had regularly updated its speakers for more than a decade — free of charge. Most other companies that make connected products shut off support much earlier. Nest stopped supporting its smart hub, Revolv, after just two years. Spectrum’s smart security products stopped working entirely after three years.

Another popular and infuriating move is for companies to start charging for features on a device after they’ve already sold it. In October 2018, the Tado smart thermostat removed features it originally included for free, such as turning the heat on and off based on location. It bundled these now-premium features with a paid subscription service, much to the frustration of customers who found these features removed remotely.

Even high-end devices can’t escape this fate, with Tesla recently removing self-driving features from a car after it was resold to a new owner because the new owner hadn’t paid for the software-based feature, despite those features being included with the car’s original purchase. (The company quietly backpedaled after the story hit the news.)

There is a desire, at least among some groups, to buy things that won’t end up in a landfill after a few years. As more and more products become disposable, growing communities online are spending hours collating and reviewing for “buy it for life” products that will last decades. The difficult truth, however, is that from connected ovens to smart hot water heaters, connected products are becoming standard, despite a lack of consideration for how long they can be used. While they may be exciting now, within a few short years, they could create an unprecedented amount of electronic waste. (We’re already generating such waste at a rate of about 50 metric tons per year.) And that is even less “smart” than a pet feeder that leaves your cat hungry.

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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