The Downside of Web/Cloud Enabled Devices (Including My Oddest Analogy of the Week)

Google's parent Alphabet is abandoning support for Revlov's Smart Home Hub (which they bought a while back).  In and of itself this part of an irritating strategy (pursued enthusiastically both by Alphabet and Apple) of identifying edgy new devices with enthusiastic user bases, buying them, and then shutting them down.   I was a SageTV fan and user back in the day until Google bought it and shut it down (as a potential competitor to GoogleTV and its other streaming products).  The bright side is that this pushed me to XBMC/KODI, which is better.  The dark side is that I am sure Google could easily write those guys a check and then they will be gone too.

Anyway, after SageTV was shut down by Google, I could still use the hardware and software, it just did not get improved or updated or supported any more.  But increasingly new electronic products are requiring some sort of cloud integration or online account activation.  To work, the product actually has to check in with the manufacturer's servers.  So what happens when those servers are shut down?

Alphabet-owned company Nest is going to pull the plug on the Revolv smart home hub and app on May 15, rendering the hardware unusable next month.

Just to be clear on how much of a big deal this is, the company isn't only out to stop support but to really disable the device and turn the hub into a $300 teardrop-shaped brick. How much does a pitchfork go for nowadays?

...Needless to say, existing users are outraged by the development, and they have very good reason to be so."When software and hardware are intertwined, does a warranty mean you stop supporting the hardware or does it mean that the manufacturer can intentionally disable it without consequence? Tony Fadell seems to believe the latter. Tony believes he has the right to reach into your home and pull the plug on your Nest products," Arlo Gilbert, CEO of Televero and formerly proud owner of a Revolv hub, says, emphasizing that "Google is intentionally bricking hardware that he owns."

Video game enthusiasts have worried about this for years, and have started to encounter this problem, as the new most-favored copyright protection scheme is to require an online account and an account-check each time the game is run.  They try to say the online component is adding value, and they do a few things like leader boards and achievements, but the primary rational is copy protection.    Personally I find this generally easier to work with than other types of copy protection that have been tried (I really like Steam, for example) but what happens when the login servers are shut down?

This sort of reminds me, oddly enough, of cemeteries.  There used to be a problem where private cemetery owners would sell out the cemetery, fill it up, and move on.  But then the cemetery itself would fall apart.  It's not like the owners are still around to pay association dues like condo owners do.  Once people figured out that problem, they quickly began demanding that cemeteries have a plan for long-term maintenance, with assets in trust or some such thing.  Perhaps the hardware and software industry will do the same thing.  I could see a non-profit trust getting set up by the major players to which manufacturers pay dues in exchange for having the trust take over their servers after a product is abandoned.

  • Jesse

    I'd say the online component of games, especially console games these days, is less about copyright protection (the games are largely downloaded now via online accounts) but more about providing a continuous revenue stream rather than the one-time purchase of the game. In order to use the on-line features of most popular PS4 and XBOX games, you must have the Sony or MS subscription purchased. That could be something like $400 per year rather than the $50 game.

  • ColoComment

    A gamers' PBGC!

  • Shane

    I think that what will happen is what always happens. Decentralization. Decoupling pieces from other pieces. Consumers are going to start to demand it in the new technological areas, and business' are going to have to evolve to accommodate it. Microsoft is starting to act like your hardware is theirs, this is not acceptable for long term stability or innovation. Microsoft's fury at anyone stealing their software has caused them to do shit that is going to be detrimental to their consumers. At first a few will abandon the ship but as more leave and more demand is created for a more decentralized OS.

    Though monolithic creates a certain stability that stability comes with a very large price in the future. People will eventually opt for openness over stability in the long run. That is why Free Markets are superior to Command and Control. There are too many variables for a single entity to handle in the long run.

  • Roy_Lofquist

    Steam doesn't tie you to a valid internet connection, at least with Bethesda (Skyrim, Fallout) and Witcher. It asks if you wish to continue offline.

  • ErikTheRed

    "pursued enthusiastically both by Alphabet and Apple"

    Not to be an a fanboi, but WTF does this have to do with Apple? They have a general policy of providing software updates and patches for four years from the introduction of a mobile device, and longer for laptops and desktops. They have been pretty solid about sticking to this - much better than any other mobile device OS provider. They also have an unofficial but fairly consistent policy of not buying new companies for their products - the last one I can think of off-hand was iTunes (which was a piece of crap then and still is today - again, well, errr... consistent). The last time that I can think of where Apple bought a product and brazenly nuked support right afterwards was never. I may be missing something, though....

  • DaveK

    The sad thing is that some very good products are abandoned and cannot achieve their potential.

    A case in point is the Squeezebox series of Internet Radio Players. When launched, the squeezebox was not only a terrific device for easily streaming audio content from the internet or from your own computer files, it was a really fine audio device with super-clean output (if you popped for a slightly more expensive linear transformer power supply), and could synchronize audio output across multiple devices around your home. Only a handful of the present crop of internet radios can synchronize audio streams even now, and most of those don't do it well. The ones that do are far more expensive than the Squeezebox ever was.

    Logitech bought Squeezebox and supported it for a few years until they decided that video (aka multimedia) streaming was where the money would be and gave the lowly squeezebox the heave-ho. The "good" thing is that Logitech has continued to support the central server that supports the squeezebox for internet streaming, but I can't see that going on for even the foreseeable future.

    But not all is lost. The squeezebox devices still show up on e-bay in good condition, and a dedicated bunch of followers have created workarounds that will allow future internet streaming. I don't look forward to the end of the Logitech server, but I'll deal with it when I must. In the meantime, I keep my eyes out for the old Squeezebox devices, as they are an easy way to expand streaming audio throughout the house, either by wi-fi or ethernet connections.

  • Earl Wertheimer

    Yes, you are missing something.
    The problem with the device, is that once the Revolv servers stop working, the device also stops working.
    The Revolv servers are integral to the operation of the home devices. The servers are not just optional sources of updates.
    If you bought a car that connected to the manufacturers' servers to update software, you would expect that the car would continue running, even if the servers stopped operating.

  • Mercury

    "Perhaps the hardware and software industry will do the same thing. I could see a non-profit trust getting set up by the major players to which manufacturers pay dues in exchange for having the trust take over their servers after a product is abandoned."
    I can't.

    The no-longer-supported-->unusable model is what the 'Internet of Things' will be.

    Which means we'll all be techno-peasants, essentially renting everything our whole lives and owning little while the techno-lords receive income streams. Government will be in the middle, blessing "expiration" dates etc. (for your own safety of course), planned phase-outs etc on everything with a computer chip in it which will be just about everything.

  • xtmar

    Or not being able to turn your lights off because your phone doesn't have the same software revision as your house.

  • jdgalt

    Maybe home automation fans should revert to using X-10. At least that didn't phone home.

  • Mike Powers

    I could see this being a liability issue. Tons of people use this Smart-Home stuff for security purposes (camera and motion-sensor monitoring, lighting- and appliance-control programs to turn things on at pseudorandom times and make the place seem occupied, door and window trigger alarms). If it stops being officially supported, then it's possible that security flaws in the devices will be discovered and make users vulnerable to hacking. And if a user gets hacked because of this security issue then they have grounds for a lawsuit.

  • jdgalt

    It would be great if that were true, but the gadget makers all know how to write EULAs.

  • jdgalt

    I don't buy it. There will certainly soon be open-source "Windows clones" just as we now have OpenOffice. But decentralization/decoupling means more manufacturers, and every new manufacturer of something your computer (or home) relies upon is one more outsider whose continued existence and goodwill you must rely upon to keep your stuff working. We need to depend on fewer people like that, not more of them.