This week, Google said it would kill its Works with Nest program, which allowed Nest devices to communicate their status and work with devices from other makers in the smart home ecosystem. In the future, all Nest devices will share data with the Google Home devices. But anyone else wanting to talk to Nest has to go through Google, too.
The move turns devices that were once capable of independent communication with other devices into a zombie controlled by Google Home. So for example, consumers who liked having their Nest thermostat talk to their Hue light bulbs without having a Google Home device will now need a Google Home device to mediate that interaction.
Google’s news caught many makers of smart home gear that relied on Nest APIs off guard. It also led to confusion among Nest customers, who will soon lose any integrations they currently have that rely on Nest APIs. There are also plenty of consumers with a Nest thermostat or a Dropcam who likely don’t even know that Google owns the company that makes their device. In many cases, people who have set up smart home automations or integrations for friends and family will themselves soon start getting confusing emails about switching to Google and automations breaking.
This is not a good look for the smart home. But it highlights an ongoing challenge that the industry must address: Smart products behave more like software than hardware.
Confusion and drama over software changes that fundamentally break smart home hardware are not uncommon. There are dozens of companies that have built products only to go under and subsequently see the physical hardware they made turn into a brick. I personally have spent hundreds of dollars on devices that no longer function because the company that made them has gone out of business.
And yet, once something is connected to the internet it becomes software. We are only just starting to have a conversation about what the implications of that are for the everyday goods around us.
At a high level, what’s happening is a shift in ownership. And for those who say that consumers should just avoid buying connected devices, I would say that’s not always an option. Try finding a new car without some kind of connectivity. Many white goods makers are adding connectivity across their lines, too, which means that in five years you may not be able to buy a fridge or a washer without connectivity and associated software features.
So companies building connected devices need to get ahead of this trend; they need to both help educate consumers and build tools that offer continuous value over the life of a connected product. We can learn more about the transition to software-based goods from physical ones by considering the trajectory of devices such as Amazon’s Kindle. In the early days, Amazon pulled content from people’s Kindles, angering a good number of Kindle users even after Amazon refunded their money.
Amazon admitted that it was a dumb way to handle the DRM issue that caused the online retailer to pull the content in the first place, but then clarified for consumers what buying a book on the Kindle meant. Indeed, people who buy physical products will resent any change in functionality that doesn’t improve the device. So one way to mitigate software-based changes to hardware is to offer a carrot along with the stick.
If a company must change the functionality of a product, it needs to be open about it, give its customers plenty of advance notice, and offer some sort of bonus feature to help soothe those who get angry over their lost functionality. Google has done the first two, and perhaps — if the backlash gets big enough — it will do the last one, too.
We also need to educate buyers about what it means to buy a product that’s more like software than it is like hardware. It’s ridiculous to expect a person who spends $50 on a connected light bulb to care about the business reasons that led to that light bulb not working as it once did. Instead, manufacturers should create a list of basic functionality that would remain unchanged in any given piece of hardware and let buyers choose their products based on that list.
Today, there may not be a lot of guarantees, but as time passes and ecosystems mature it’s likely that competition to build out devices with connected features that will be guaranteed for a set amount of time will add enough value that it will justify their cost. It’s much like software works today, where customers pay extra for features like longevity, continual driver updates, security updates, and privacy policies that stay consistent.
As our hardware becomes more like software, consumers will want to base their buying decisions on these categories as well. We just have to get used to that.