Nest smart thermostat outages highlight issues with smart home technology
Internet connected home gadgets don't always fail gracefully, Dan Misener reports
Early adopters of smart-home technology may find themselves out in the cold when something goes wrong.
That happened to owners of the internet-connected Nest thermostat recently when the gadgets failed and their home temperatures plunged in the middle of winter.
The smart thermostat is designed to automatically adjust the temperature of your home based on your preferences and whether you're home or not. It also allows you to control the temperature remotely over the internet. Of course, all that is when it's working properly.
CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains what happens when the connected home disconnects.
What happened with Nest's thermostats?
We don't have a full explanation of what happened, but earlier this month, a number of Nest users complained of issues on the company's online support forum.
Some said their thermostat was unresponsive. Others said they woke up to a completely drained battery. Other thermostats apparently lost connectivity altogether and went offline.
One Nest owner, Colin Dean, told me he was at work when his Nest failed. But his girlfriend was at home at the time, and she sent him a text, wondering why their home was so cold.
"So I popped on my phone and looked at the Nest, and it said 'offline,'" Dean said. "I got on my computer and looked at it, and it said 'offline for 11 hours.'"
Of course, a home with no heat during a January winter in Canada can present a problem.
And it points to the bigger picture too — more and more products need to be constantly connected, and they do not always fail gracefully.
How has Nest responded?
On their website, they suggested affected customers manually recharge and restart their devices — not a simple process, as I found out myself a few months ago.
There are nine different steps, which include removing the Nest from the wall, recharging it with a USB cable for 10 minutes, unplugging it, pressing down on the middle of the thermostat, plugging it back in for an hour to let it charge up, and so on.
As for why this happened, Nest blames a software update. In an interview with the New York Times, Nest's co-founder said that a software update back in December contained a bug, but that the bug didn't show up until January.
Have other smart home technologies had issues?
A company called Wink had a major issue in May of 2015.
They pushed out a software update last spring that turned many of their customer's hubs into bricks. The hubs lost their connection to the internet for an extended period of time and basically just stopped working.
Nest itself has had issues going back as far as 2014, when it had to put a stop to the sale of smoke alarms due to a defect that could allow users to turn them off unintentionally.
There have also been high-profile Nest outages in the past few months — one back in September, another in October, then more connectivity issues this month, in addition to the battery issues.
Some of these outages were widespread, affecting all customers. Others were smaller, and impacted a small percentage.
But given that Nest sells items like internet-connected smoke detectors, thermostats, and security cameras, any downtime can be a significant issue for users.
How can smart home companies do a better job of dealing with outages?
Outages will happen — no consumer-grade smart home device is going to work perfectly 100 per cent of the time, nor is any internet connection 100 per cent reliable. And software updates sometimes come with bugs.
That all means smart-home devices need to have counter-measures for when they do, inevitably, fail.
Customer communication is another essential piece. Back in September, Nest's vice-president of engineering promised to do a better job of letting customers know about outages.
Nest customer Colin Dean agrees that's needed.
"Oh yeah, Nest should practically be grovelling in front of customers because of this," he said.
"Software's hard, it's hard to flush out all the bugs, but when bad stuff happens, you've got to grovel, and you've got to make it right."
Will we see more smart home failures in the future?
It seems very likely. Judging by the number of internet-of-things products on display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, we're going to see a lot more of this kind of thing.
But we may also see the rise of a counter-trend, which is a move back to old-fashioned, non-connected, non-smart devices — what some people are referring to as "strategic downgrading."
That sort of thing happens when early adopters decide that a new technology is too fussy, or not worth the trouble. They switch back to a previous generation of a product that might not have all latest features, but is better suited to their needs, or more reliable — or fails more gracefully.