Smart homes need deep trust from wary people

Nest is killing off a smart home hub - and undermining the trust of early adopters. Smart homes need smart people - who trust you.

If there’s any tech more personal to us than the phone, it’s probably the smart home. And that’s why getting the smart home right is so very important.

You could easily see the Internet of Things as not being particularly personal – it’s about objects and places, after all. That would be a mistake. In particular, the connected objects we use in our homes are ones that are intensely personal to us. Our home is our safe place, our retreat. Once we close the door, we want to feel safe in there. But get smart objects wrong, and you undermine that faith. A baby monitor that doesn’t show us our child – or worse, shows our child to the whole internet – is worse than useless. It feels like a threat to those we hold most dear.

Is the smart home is to ever become mainstream, people have to implicitly trust it.

A question of trust

Indeed, if the internet of things is to truly integrate itself into the home, we have to be able to trust those objects to be reliable. A smart door lock has to be as safe as a dumb one – but more useful. And we’re replacing devices that lasted decades with ones that will break more quickly. There’s a trade-off: does the increased utility of the smart object counterbalance the need to replace it more frequently? It has to – if you want people to commit to buying and then rebuying these objects over the years.

A big part of that equation is the need to ensure that failure period isn’t so soon that we don’t feel we can rely on those gadgets.

All of which makes this rather sobering reading for the internet of things enthusiast:

On May 15th a critical Nest product will go dark. I’m shocked this isn’t bigger news.
I don’t mean that the Nest product will reach end-of-life for support and updates. No, 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.

Essentially, the Revolve, a connected home hub acquired by Alphabet’s Nest division, is dependent on a server infrastructure. Those servers are being turned off – so that product is going away. And by “going away”, I mean “being turned into an expensive brick made out of electronics”. The buyers though they were buying a device – but it turns out that they were buying a service – and a time-limited one at that. Their Revolv’s are being turned off with only a few months’ notice.

Buried at the end of the official announcement of Revolv’s demise is this little note:

If you’re a current Revolv customer, please email us at [email protected] so we can help you out during this transition and provide you with a refund of the purchase price of your Revolv hub.

And that’s good. Provided the Revolv customers notice this, they won’t be out of pocket. But this is a later addition – the original plane was just to turn off the devices, because they were “out of warranty”. And, worse than that is the fact that the owners will have lost the time and effort they invested in creating a decent home automation solution around this product. And, as the old saying goes, once bitten, twice shy. You’ve just turned a bunch of early adopters – the people most likely to evangelise your products and create a marketplace – into people worried about committing to a connected home.

Once bitten, twice shy

Arno Gilbert, the author of the piece linked above, is exactly the sort of enthusiast you want on your side:

I am a home automation nut. When I arrive home my lights turn on. In lieu of motion detecting lights, I have a Z-wave motion detector that notifies my Revolv when there is motion on any side of our home and turns on the appropriate lights. Although I do set a home alarm, there is really no more effective vacation security than the programatic turning on, dimming, and turning off of lights in a manner that would indicate that people are home. After buying my Revolv I put my outdoor landscaping light on it and threw away the old timer. Now at Sunset my landscape lighting turns on. Holiday lighting does the same. It’s magical.

Nest’s decision makes perfect short-term business sense. They’re not planning on developing the product further, so why waste resources on maintaining a little-used product? Turn off those servers, and save the money and staff for other things.

The connected home, Google-style, with Nest products

In the long-term? Well done. You’ve now got people eyeing their Nest smart thermostats and wondering if they’ll be the next ones to be turned off.

Gilbert again:

Which hardware will Google choose to intentionally brick next? 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? What about your Dropcam? What about your Chromecast device? Will Google/Nest endanger your family at some point?

At some point, a decision was made that didn’t truly take into account people – the users. Tech has a problem with this – many tech businesses tend to focus on the product and forget about the user – but it’s far from alone. How many companies have become more about internal politics, then serving the user? How many journalists are working to beat the opposition, rather than inform the reader?

The more our digital product come to rely on services – and servers – the more we need to plan for supporting those users in the medium term, even if the product fails. Because if we don’t, user-by-user, product-by-product, we erode our potential market. And no business – or innovation – can survive that.