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Computer says no

Billy MacInnes muses non the flipside to everything being connected and wonders what happens when things get turned off

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: MicroScope: MicroScope: May 2016

Imagine if one day you’re happily driving your car, unaware that your three or five year warranty has expired that very day, and it suddenly just dies on you on the way to the chemist’s. Try as you might, you can’t get the engine to start, so you ring someone for assistance and the person on the other end of the line says something like: “Oh yes, the warranty has expired on that vehicle. The manufacturer no longer supports that product.”

And that’s when you discover the car hasn’t died on you because of a mechanical fault but because the manufacturer has taken the decision to stop supporting it and intentionally disable the car. Now how do you think you would react in that scenario? Would any car manufacturer even dare to do such a thing?

Sounds fanciful and distinctly unlikely but that’s what’s just happened to people unfortunate enough to own smart hubs from Revolv, which was bought by Google-owned Nest in October last year. A message on the Revolv web site states “we can’t allocate resources to Revolv anymore and we have to shut down the service. As of May 15, 2016, your Revolv hub and app will no longer work”.

The warranty’s gone too. “Our one-year warranty against defects in materials or workmanship has expired for all Revolv products,” the web site adds.

I suspect that the people who coughed up more than $200 for a Revolv hub aren’t going to be very happy about that. One disgruntled user who hasn’t gone quietly is Arlo Gilbert, CEO at Televero, who has posted about the decision on Medium. Gilbert, a self-confessed “home automation nut”, uses Revolv to control a lot of devices in his house. As he puts it: “Revolv is the director and my devices are a beautiful orchestra of home technology.”

Unfortunately for him, the director is being put to sleep. “On May 15th, my house will stop working,” Gilbert writes. “Google is intentionally bricking hardware that I own.”

Some people might be inclined to think “tough” but what happens if it happens for other products? : Which hardware will Google choose to intentionally brick next?”, Gilbert asks. It’s not just Google. The same could apply for any vendor selling devices that “have software and hardware that are inextricably linked”.

As Gilbert points out, no one would tolerate the likes of Dell or Apple intentionally disabling their products after a limited lifetime. Yes, the warranty might expire but that doesn’t mean the product stops working at the same time. Channel partners have often continued to support a product for a customer long after the vendor involved has replaced it with something new.

This is fascinating territory because it raises some difficult questions for vendors, customers and partners. How can channel partners, for example, take products on board to sell and support to customers if the manufacturer can arbitrarily turn them off at a moment’s notice? What guarantees can they give to customers about the stability and longevity of products if those products can be summarily terminated if the manufacturer is taken over by another vendor?

The Internet of Things (IoT) promises all kinds of wonderful things in terms of the interconnection of devices and the ability to control them but the marketers often forget to mention that same connectivity also makes it easier to disable and terminate those devices. As Revolv users are finding out, being connected also makes it easier to be disconnected. It doesn’t take much for a thing to become no-thing.

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