Making a connected device requires more than just a chip or an app. The best connected devices are really services wrapped in a piece of hardware. The hardware is a delivery mechanism, but it’s not the core feature.
For example, the Amazon Echo is the hottest IoT device around in the consumer market. But the hardware is a wrapper for the personal assistant, a smart home hub and music on demand.
I’ve written about this concept before, but I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the ramifications of this shift.
One ramification is that consumers expect that over time the Echo (and similar devices) to do more. So developers are constantly working not just on getting a new piece of physical hardware in the world, but also on adding features to all of the other existing Echos in homes.
The product development cycle shifts from one focused on getting a new device out the door every year or two, to a bifurcated product development cycle focused on new hardware as well as new software features for all of the existing devices.
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This can be rough on manufacturers but also rough on consumers who may find their hardware becoming obsolete, making them unable to participate in new features. Tesla vehicles are a great example of this challenge. Cars from earlier years don’t have the hardware for the autopilot features and Tesla Founder Elon Musk says that Tesla owners should just get used to this.
One day we’ll likely get most of our products as a service instead of buying them upfront. Until we get there, should our connected devices have an expiration date? This may sound silly, but I think it’s going to pop up more and more as a question that deserves an answer.
In 2013 I purchased a $250 Nest thermostat and wired it to my HVAC unit. This was the most I have ever spent on a thermostat and the first time I had actually purchased one. Before the Nest, it was a product that was just “there” and never changed until my AC broke down (and maybe not even then).
Since I bought my Nest, the company has made several software upgrades and released two new versions of the thermostat. I have to think that at some point the hardware inside my thermostat may not be able to handle an upgrade or a missing sensor might mean I miss out on a new service.
In the computer and smartphone world this isn’t an uncommon issue, and so we see vendors pledge to support their phones with the latest operating system and security patches for two to three years after the first launch of the physical hardware.
After that, the device may or many not keep working with subsequent updates and they may become vulnerable to security breaches.
Apple, Google, Samsung and others make sure these policies are fairly well understood and also have picked a time frame that matches the lifecycle of the phones or computers.
When it comes to smart home gear (or even things like enterprise gateways) the promise of support is less clear. Most consumer companies don’t have anything on their sites or in their terms of service about this topic. Enterprises generally strike some sort of deal.
I asked Belkin about this idea of expiration dates for connected devices because the company makes everything from routers to wall switches that a user installs. Brian Van Harlingen, CTO at Belkin, explained that the company hasn’t set any defined date for its WeMo products yet, but it expects to support every product for five years after it has been taken off the market.
So barring some catastrophe, my four-and-a-half-year-old WeMo switch will still be supported for five years after Belkin stops manufacturing them. Honestly, that feels a bit generous given how much technology can change in half a decade. Especially since WeMo may still be making connected outlets a decade from now.
So while I’m comforted that some vendors are at least thinking about this, I am concerned that we’re not actively talking about how businesses plan to ease off support for an older generation of products. It may not be as bad as asbestos, but un-updatable smart switch in your walls doesn’t seem like a fun thing to deal with in twenty-five years.