A fortnight after Wink announced it would be terminating their free cloud platform in favour of a paid service, they’ve given users of their home automation products a last minute reprieve an extended the free platform for an indefinite period.
While owners of Wink smart-home products such as their motion and door/ window sensors will no-doubt be sighing in relief, this story – less than a month after Belkin’s shock decision to brick their Netcam range of products, exposes the vulnerabilities of cloud dependent IoT devices.
An automated smart house where various functions including the garden lights can be operated by text … [+]
While Belkin blamed external factors, such as the support ending with their relationship with Tend Insights, in Wink’s case the problem is business model exposure to the macro-economic picture. Wink has, since 2014 offered a free cloud platform to those who purchase their connected home devices, but the cost of providing it is ongoing, whereas the income they receive from the sale of their product is one-off. If sales in Wink’s products fall, then this pinches their ability to continue to offer their cloud platform, but they were facing with the uncomfortable reality of forcing customers to pay for something they had assumed to be permanently free, and announced a move to a paid subscription at the start of May.
Users who have agreed to sign up to the new paid cloud offering are now not going to be charged, but this game of chicken with the early adopter smart home community once again shows how poor design choices from vendors such as Wink and Belkin and a lack of visibility into business model dependencies are likely to shatter trust in this market.
A number of years ago, I drove from New York to Pittsburgh to meet Mickey McManus, author of the book Trillions. Mickey runs a design agency, Maya, which is now part of BCG. He had the foresight to realise that the technology industry has slowly abandoned core engineering disciplines in its move to mass consumerisation, and, as the central thrust of his book argues, this compromise in design principles could lead to our technology enabled future not becoming viable due to reliability factors creeping in. In short, he made a case for individual products with poor design at scale leading to unreliability of the whole system. Capability would plateau rather than increase as our IoT world grew more complex. Anyone who has invested in smart home technology as an early adopter would recognise this trend. To control lights, heating, electricity sockets, and home security requires multiple devices across multiple platforms. These platforms have multiple dependencies, and when one of these dependencies is broken (even something simple like a change in the name of your wifi network) then the system ceases to work as intended. Many smart home aficionados play a continuous game of catch-up on smart-home maintenance. One system is brought back online, just as another fails. Our brave new world is not as bright as it looked when it was sold to us.
The smart home industry (and Cloud/ IoT market more generally) needs to wake up urgently to this problem. As individual vendors like Wink reveal their exposure to macro-economic forces, it only needs the failure of one or two platforms for faith in the whole ecosystem to be shattered. While many users will be put off from further investment in their smart home due to the economic uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic; should one of their smart-home solutions be turned off or they be held to ransom on a move to a paid platform, this will very likely kill any interest in further investment. In short, the failure of one provider could see the failure of the whole ecosystem. The time to act is now.
I can see blue sky and sunshine behind the looming clouds, however. As Facebook have come to recognise, the solution to building trust is in putting in place good governance. IoT firms should learn from this, and ensure they put the appropriate operational hooks into their product lifecycle – not just at conception and design stages, but also at pivot and end-of-life points to ensure concerns from stakeholders are adequately addressed and don’t lead to negative media coverage and reputational harm.
If technology companies don’t have an ethics governance structure (such as the models I describe in this paper) then now is the time to set one up. It doesn’t need the $130 million investment that Facebook have committed, it can simply be someone in the Chief Digital Officer or Chief Product Officer’s team to be tasked with engaging with external expertise on these matters. For the smallest start-up a red-teaming exercise might suffice – the point is that the tools and techniques do exist, but organisations don’t realise the need for them until it’s too late.
While the Open Source community can play a significant role in helping ensure that end-of-life or unsupported products have a future, this is no substitute for vendors such as Belkin or Wink being responsible for the design of their products to ensure that cloud services offer only value-add capability, but the design of the product is such as not to depend on the existence or connectivity with cloud platforms. Providing core capability through a third-party service with no-backup is an absolute no-no, and I would argue that regulation might need to be introduced to force vendors to label their products with health warnings where this is the case. For example, when you buy your Amazon Alexa – maybe a nudge should be on the box (or the website) to make it clear that Amazon can pull the plug literally at any moment. While the worst examples of products being deliberately bricked by vendors are hopefully behind us, there are a myriad of reasons why vendors might choose or need to end support – and very little that consumers can do to avoid the impact of this.
Vendors in the smart home/ Cloud IoT industry should consider firmware updates, software updates, and potentially device hub introductions to ensure that their own products are independent of cloud infrastructure and therefore users immune from the twists and turns of their economic fortunes. Perhaps an industry consortium should be created in order to find a common approach to this collective challenge? It strikes me as lunacy that when I use an app to switch off my radio, my screen tap is transmitted to a cloud server only to come back through my firewall into my home automation system to be converted into an infrared beam. Such dependencies are incredibly brittle, and given the premium cost of solutions on the market – offer poor value to customers who might only get 3-5 years use of a system before it stops working.
I don’t want to dissuade you, the reader, from buying home automation products or services, as I know very well how much the smart home industry depends on your dollars, especially now – but I do hope you vote with your wallet and buy only from vendors who offer a strong commitment to ethics and quality in the design of their products. And to vendors – a number of shots have been fired across your bows, don’t leave it until the trust in your sector is as hard to repair as your products are themselves! Act now to ensure that your products and those of your competitors are shored up against external vulnerabilities. If the economic downturn results in the loss of one or two of you, it very might well kill the cloud smart home market for good. Let’s work to ensure that doesn’t happen.