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Bricked house: How obsolescence looms over our “smart” home devices

The latest installment of our ongoing blog series "Junked by Design" 

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Nathan Proctor
Senior Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair

Author: Nathan Proctor

Senior Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair

(857) 413-2534

Started on staff: 2005
B.A., Tufts University

Nathan leads U.S. PIRG’s Right to Repair campaign, working to pass legislation that will prevent companies from blocking consumers’ ability to fix their own electronics. In 2009, while working with the network’s Digital Team, he mobilized so many people to deliver online comments to then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in opposition to cuts to the state parks budget that they crashed the governor’s email servers. Nathan lives in Arlington, Mass., with his wife and two children.

The dream of a smart home is that, using your smartphone, you can control your lights, check to see who’s outside the front door, shut the garage door, or turn the temperature down – from anywhere on the planet. Saving you time or cutting energy bills, some of the latest features go so far as to water your plants and mow your lawn over an app.

The nightmare of a smart home? Those futuristic features that you spend hours installing to make your life easier suddenly deactivate.

Smart home devices have a history of obsolescence, undercutting the benefits they might promise. Imagine going through the time and expense of setting up an automated lighting system, only to see it become “bricked” (rendered useless) overnight. Not only would you need to figure out a new way to turn on the lights, but all the connected hardware you bought is destined for a landfill. 

If you buy a device, you expect to control it, be able to maintain it and use it for years – especially when it comes to features of your home. But if your devices can stop working at any time, on the whim of the manufacturer, do you really own them?  

For example, say you bought a Wink smart home hub to control various smart home devices from one central app. For months, you use your Wink with satisfaction, until the surprising  announcement in July that you’ll need to start paying another $4.99 per month to use your device. That’s another $60 per year to continue using what you already bought for $70. 

At that cost, it actually makes sense to buy a new smart home hub, and trash your Wink. 

Obsolescence abounds in the short history of smart homes 

While smart home features have been around for two decades, Google and Amazon started pushing into the market in a major way in 2014. That year, Amazon debuted Alexa, and Google acquired smart-home company Nest for $3.2 billion

The bricking began in 2016, when Nest, still operating independently from Google, bricked all smart home devices made by Revolv. The smaller Revolv was acquired by Nest in 2014, and two years after the acquisition, it had a base of consumers who were told they could no longer use their $300 devices. They had no choice but to toss them. Arlo, a Revolv hub owner, wrote on Medium: 

On May 15th, my house will stop working. My landscape lighting will stop turning on and off, my security lights will stop reacting to motion, and my home made vacation burglar deterrent will stop working. This is a conscious intentional decision by Google/Nest … Which hardware will Google choose to intentionally brick next?”

Another brick in the wall 

When Nest was first acquired by Google, it operated as a separate brand for four years, until 2018. In that year, Nest became “Google Nest.” Before Google was added to the mix, Nest produced various smart home devices that operated under a Nest Account, and owners could integrate with third-party devices or smart hubs, such as Amazon’s Alexa. In 2019, however, Google announced the cancellation of its “Works with Nest” program. That move would force third-party companies to support the Google Assistant in order to integrate with Nest devices. 

At Google’s command, the owners of a Nest smart home hub would no longer be able to control their smart thermostat or light switch if they were made by companies that didn’t support Google Assistant or a Google Account. 

After some backlash, only a week after this announcement, Google reinstated the Works with Nest program. Google quickly realized that dissatisfied customers may defect and buy new smart home devices compatible with Amazon and its Alexa, thus giving its competition a boost. 

Works with Nest came back, but consumers should proceed cautiously. Whenever it’s most convenient to Google, it can stop letting you use a device that you paid for and expected to last. That means more waste, and more money spent.

Electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, and also the most toxic to our health; 70 percent of heavy metals and toxic substances in landfills come from e-waste. The technological benefits which allow you to control your home over an app are undermined when smart home device users are subjected to the whims of the original electronic manufacturers – the tech companies – which can brick devices and create thousands of pounds of e-waste just to generate additional revenue. 

Time for a new era in digital consumer rights

We are entering a new age of connected consumer electronics, but our consumer rights haven’t caught up. There is no minimum duration of software required for these products, nor do companies have to tell consumers how long they plan to support a device, and when it will go into “recycle mode.” Device manufacturers don’t have to  allow repurposing or reuse of a product  after they no longer wish to provide software support, and third parties that could offer new software packages to support devices have no legal protection against copyright lawsuits. We need these critical consumer and environmental safeguards as more Americans use the internet of things. 

Until consumer rights catch up to, the real smart move is to buy “dumb” electronics – free from the threat of abritrary bricking – which you can count on to keep working. 

 

Read more about our Junked by Design series here. Anne Marie Green contributed to the writing of this article. 

Nathan Proctor
Senior Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair

Author: Nathan Proctor

Senior Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair

(857) 413-2534

Started on staff: 2005
B.A., Tufts University

Nathan leads U.S. PIRG’s Right to Repair campaign, working to pass legislation that will prevent companies from blocking consumers’ ability to fix their own electronics. In 2009, while working with the network’s Digital Team, he mobilized so many people to deliver online comments to then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in opposition to cuts to the state parks budget that they crashed the governor’s email servers. Nathan lives in Arlington, Mass., with his wife and two children.