Alphabet, Google’s parent holding company, recently announced that one of the smart thermostat companies they acquired, Revolv (not Nest), would be closing up shop and shutting down their servers on May 15, effectively rendering the Revolv to be nothing more than an ugly, overpriced piece of technologized wall-art. Though this news broke at the start of April, I was intentionally holding off on writing about it until the dust settled. My assumption was that after the digital backlash, the decrying of a company like Google bricking their $300 devices, and the massive PR repercussions, Google would cave and choose to keep the servers up, find a workaround to have Revolv connect to Nest servers, or offer people free Nest thermostats as a replacement.
While they could still come through like a white knight, there appear to be no signs of turning back. Truth be told, at this point, the damage is done and they’re almost better off riding this one out and letting it die where it fell.
And while the internet has been extremely vocal about this topic in a way that only the internet can be, I feel that the massive, amorphous blogosphere may be missing the point. Do a bit of reading on this topic and most articles you’ll find everyone – from Forbes to some blog by a guy named Forbes – talking about this as a signal for the economic risks of buying into the IoT movement. “You’re crazy to buy into IoT if companies can just flip a switch and make your purchase useless.” While a touch extremist, it’s not a terrible point. However, it’s only beginning to scratch the surface of the issue at hand.
What happened here? People bought a Revolv, Alphabet shut them down, consumers are out $300, and now they have to go through the painstaking steps of reinstalling their old thermostat while probably getting the wiring backwards at least once. In the grand scheme of things, this hardship is minimal.
However, what would happen if we weren’t talking about a thermostat, but a connected medical device, an industrial safety device, or a vehicle feature? Undoubtedly, these types of life-or-death gadgets will have failsafes for short-term server connectivity issues. But if a server goes down completely, how long will they last unconnected before leading to some form of catastrophe?
The Revolv case does not highlight an ethical obligation for companies to commit to maintaining their servers or software updates. Instead, it highlights the importance of the Internet of Things movement to also have a plain “Things” functionality – an unconnected functionality that, at a bare minimum, keeps the wheels turning as a “dumb” device. While our assumption going forward is that connectivity and data collection will be ubiquitous, we need to be ready for when networks go dark or companies drop support, so that the electronic world around us doesn’t grind to a halt.
IoT designs need two tiers of functionality, and if you’re not considering this in every device that you make, you’re setting yourself up for a public smearing as bad, or worse, than Google’s.