Here's a downside to the internet of things — companies can potentially disconnect your smart devices and leave them essentially useless at any time.
A Texas man who runs his smart home with a $299 US ($393) device called the Revolv hub is angry and dismayed to learn that the Nest, the Google affiliate that makes the device, will "brick" it on May 15.
"I mean that on May 15th they will actually turn off the device and disable your ability to use the hardware that you paid for," wrote Arlo Gilbert in an article on Medium Monday.
Revolv confirms on its website that as of May 15, "the Revolv app won't open and the hub won't work."
While that doesn't affect a huge number of customers at the moment, it could have wider implications for the growing number of connected devices that are becoming part of "internet of things," from smart thermostats to smart, connected cars. Such devices typically combine both hardware and software components from their manufacturers.
The connectivity of smart devices allows for convenient remote access, as well as regular updates over the internet. Those updates, in turn, allow manufacturers like Google and Tesla to promise new features and better security. Nest says its software updates mean its products "actually get better over time."
But the connectivity required to keep the machine running optimally could also cause complications if the manufacturer chooses to stop updating or supporting the device.
Security system disabled
Gilbert, who lives in Austin, Tex., is CEO of the health app maker Televero Health. He uses the Revolv hub and app to manage the motion sensors, lights and other parts of his smart home security system.
"My security system stops working now because of it," he told CBC News in an interview Tuesday.
Gilbert bought the device when Revolv was an independent company. In 2014, when the company was acquired by Nest, which was itself bought by Google and is now part of the holding company known as Alphabet, Gilbert thought that could lead to new features. He also knew it was possible that the company could stop supporting the device and that it might lose its internet connectivity — although he expected it would still connect to other devices on his home network.
When he read on the company's website that it would stop working altogether, he said, "My jaw dropped."
Then he began to wonder about the bigger implications.
'Which hardware will Google choose to intentionally brick next?' - Arlo Gilbert
"Which hardware will Google choose to intentionally brick next?" he wrote. "If they stop supporting Android will they decide that the day after the last warranty expires that your phone will go dark? Is your Nexus device safe? What about your Nest fire/smoke alarm?"
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a U.S.-based organization that lobbies for technology consumers' rights, noted in a blog post Tuesday that "bricking the hub sets a terrible precedent for a company with ambitions to sell self-driving cars, medical devices, and other high-end gadgets that may be essential to a person's livelihood or physical safety."
Gilbert said he will never buy another hardware product from Nest and will likely also avoid products from small startups like Revolv.
"The lesson I've learned is buy your hardware from well-established companies that have a history of long-time support of their products," he said. And he thinks he may just build his next smart home hub himself. "That way at least I know I'm the one in control of it."
In a statement, Nest said the company has been working with the "small number of Revolv customers on a case-by-case basis since we sent out the first customer notification in February to determine the best resolution, including compensation."
Nigel Wallis, an analyst with IDC Canada who specializes in the internet of things, said it would be a shame if the incident makes people shy away from buying connected devices from startups, which he says are producing the most innovative and creative new gadgets right now.
But he acknowledged that incidents like this may make early adopters less enthusiastic about connected devices.
"They've offended the very people they need to be evangelists for the internet of things," he said.
That could also make new customers shy away, especially when it comes to devices such as fridges or cars that are expected to have lifespans for more than a decade, he says.
Potential liability issues
But Wallis says he understands why Nest may have done this. Once they stop supporting Revolv, he said, "from a liability point of view… they can't leave it connected to the internet." If security patches are no longer being applied, that could leave the device vulnerable to hackers.
Imran Ahmad, a legal expert in cybersecurity and the internet of things for the law firm Cassels Brock, said while customers may assume that their device will still have some functionality without its software and internet connection, they shouldn't.
Customers should be aware that with the internet of things, devices need to be seen increasingly more of a service than a physical object, he added.
"There's no obligation by a manufacturer to continue offering a service or a product if there's no market for it."
Wallis recommends that when customers buy smart devices, they do their research and make sure they know what kind of functionality a device still has if it's disconnected from the internet.
"What happens in an ice storm? What happens in a blackout in the summer?"
In the past, Nest users have complained about their homes becoming freezing cold in the middle of winter after their thermostats lost internet connectivity, for example.
The company said Nest thermostats, smoke alarms and CO alarms are designed to work without an internet connection.
But Wallis said ultimately, customers, especially those in business and government buying long-lasting devices such as smart meters and streetlights — need to push back against vendors and demand solutions to support connected devices over the longer term, either through the manufacturer or through a third party.