Over the years I have generously described the smart home as ‘flattering to deceive’, meaning that it’s just never quite achieved what it should. What has become increasingly clear, and was reinforced by an announcement last week from Wink, is that the failure is largely self-inflicted.
Let’s start with the announcement. Wink makes smart home kit. It charges (or perhaps I should say “used to charge”) up front for the hardware and promised not to charge fees. Last week it announced, with one week’s notice, that it would start charging $4.99 per month. Failure to pay would result in devices being disabled. The response has not been positive, so say the least. There is even talk of class action law suits. Probably Wink was in a financial hole and saw this as the only option. Realistically the negative publicity will ruin its chances of selling devices in the future, so this wasn’t the solution.
This is just the latest in a long line of abject behaviour in this space. In The Internet of Things Myth we discuss failings in user experience. A disproportionate number of them related to smart home.
In 2017, Garadget took the unusual step of remotely deactivating the connected garage door of one of its clients who had the temerity to write a negative review. This left the owner with a garage door that would not open. Similarly, bad experiences have been reported with car-sharing applications where the vehicle refuses to start because it is out of mobile network coverage. Will these experiences be shared by people who choose to have connected fridges, washing machines, or security systems? The act of introducing a service provider into a relationship between a person and their essential appliances has the potential to create friction.
The negative experience of ‘bricking’ might not take the form of the whole product line, but just a small constituent part. Just one example is that of Philips, which in April 2019 announced that it was ceasing support for its Hue Bridge v1. Barely five years after launch, the owners of said products were given 12 months’ notice that they would be effectively switched off “to help ensure that our customers continue to receive the best-connected lighting performance experience possible”. Sonos experienced a significant backlash when it announced in January 2020 that it would stop supporting some of its legacy devices.
The most extreme example of friction is probably the supplier deciding to cease supporting the product altogether, of which there are numerous examples. Google has a reputation for ‘failing fast’, closing down any project that doesn’t look like it will be a success. This approach was also extended to Revolv, a smart home start-up that it acquired in 2014. By early 2016 it was announced that support for the product would be ended, rendering them entirely useless.
What companies are doing is applying web experiences to physical products. Products which might have been expected to last for decades, such as garage doors or lighting systems are given lifespans more readily associated with smart phones. People replace their mobile phones every few years, but that logic is erroneously extended to more functional electronics. There’s a very real risk that the expensive new connected device will end up either useless or with no more functionality than the old unconnected version you swapped out for it, and possibly no functionality at all.
The worst thing is the knock-on effect on overall confidence in the smart home. Every vendor is tarnished with the same negative experience. A bit of mud probably even sticks to Amazon and Apple, but less so than any unknown newcomer. This means the chance of a breakthrough new entrant in the space is massively diminished.