If you harbor fears about the so-called internet of things, or IoT — that fancy term for all those chattering online devices currently burrowing into every crevice of our homes — then your concern likely has to do with privacy. Indeed, the potential for smart assistants like Amazon’s Alexa to listen in on us is undeniably creepy. But, at least so far, our privacy fears are overblown. The worst Amazon has done with its spying power is save snippets of users’ questions to ensure its voice recognition software is accurate.
The internet of things is more than just Alexa, and its weak point is more than just privacy. We’re talking about hundreds of devices performing every conceivable labor-saving function. Now, at the end of what was supposed to be the IoT decade, these gadgets are already starting to do what was always more likely, the mundane thing that technology has pretty much always done: either break down and leave us stranded, or effectively extort more money from us, after we’ve been foolish enough to start relying on them.
Over the years, I’ve had a number of negative IoT experiences that lead me to believe we’re heading for a potential apocalypse of things. It isn’t that your smart door lock or smart coffee cup is going to spy on you — it’s that the lock might keep you from entering the house when the startup that makes it unexpectedly goes out of business, or the app that heats the coffee to your perfect temperature might decide to stop doing so until you upgrade to a new cup.
The fail fridge
For years, the poster child for a bad IoT device in my house was our Samsung smart fridge. When my wife and I bought ours in 2012, the latest model had an internet-connected screen built in; this screen displayed news headlines, tweets, and the weather. Oh, how naive we were, back when that sounded like something worth spending an extra $300 on. And on how many mornings did I curse that fridge, in 2016 and 2017, for delivering intensely awful information before I’d had the chance to steel myself with coffee.
By that time, it was impossible to stop the flood of nightmare news, or even to change the fridge’s out-of-time clock. The touchscreen no longer responded to touch. Samsung’s troubleshooting guide suggested that we recalibrate the touchscreen. This required pressing the settings button on the screen, which did not register being pressed because of the mis-calibrated touchscreen. As Catch-22s go, this one was a whopper.
Resetting the fridge screen with a paper clip didn’t help. Turning it off and on again — which required resetting the electric breakers for the entire kitchen — didn’t help. Eventually we changed he WiFi password, so the fridge no longer had internet access, and the stream of nightmare news in our kitchen ceased.
For all its flaws, however, the smart fridge at least still worked as a fridge. That wasn’t the case with the next major fail.
Room to swing a dead cat feeder
Our first total IoT breakdown came courtesy of that most innocuous of interconnected items — a cat feeder. Specifically the Feed And Go, a pet food dispenser made by a British company of the same name that launched back in 2015.
The Feed and Go was what Apple would make if it got into the pet food game: sleek, solid, airtight, free of physical buttons, very well reviewed, with a high-end price tag ($299). My wife splashed out in part because its covered carousel was the only thing that could feed our cat, Mowgli, wet food when we went away, for up to five days. The online interface let us feed him at any time, or adjust the feeding schedule at will, remotely.
Oh yes, and it had a built-in camera that streamed to the Feed and Go website. Once or twice on most vacation days. we’d drop whatever we were doing and tune in to the Mowgli show. Called over by my pre-recorded voice, the cat would trot across the kitchen, eyes wide with surprise, then his head would block the camera as he snarfed his latest meal. Occasionally we’d catch a satisfied eye or a streak of fur. It was the best show on the internet.
The camera wasn’t the fastest frame rate or the highest resolution, but it could do two jobs in one. When it wasn’t showing feedings, it pointed at the whole kitchen, reassuring us at a glance that all was well and that we hadn’t left anything cooking on the stove. That was all the security camera we needed. It seemed every bit as embedded and necessary as our Nest, our garage opener, our Alexa-connected smart lights.
Then in October last year, Feed and Go abruptly died — not our particular device, but the entire service. On its website, a notice said the company was shutting down. “We had an amazing time helping thousands of pets eat healthier and on schedule,” it said, cheerily, as if this were always supposed to be a temporary state of affairs. No refunds, natch. (Luckily we were at home when it happened; Mowgli did not have to go hungry for five days.)
Without the website, there was no way to control the feeder. Supposedly an app was built to work with the then-new 2018 model, but it had vanished from the App Store by the time we thought to look, and other users reported that their apps had stopped working, too. In the space of a second, an essential household object had become a glossy white plastic brick.
Without a trace
Most of us know that sickening feeling of realizing that we rely on the internet more than we think. Usually we have to travel outside our coverage zone into No Service space to have this revelation. Or your Alexa stops working temporarily and you suddenly discover you have no other way to turn the lights off and on, or your Nest thermostat goes offline and you can’t turn up the heat.
Sometimes it happens when companies yank a digital product you thought you owned, as when Amazon — infamously and without a trace of irony — pulled copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four from all Kindles.
But with Feed and Go, here was an entire IoT service vanishing down the memory hole like it had never existed. What happened? Did owners addicted to their own personal cat videos drive up Feed and Go’s web hosting costs? It’s hard to say, because the company has gone dark. Its website was suspended for nonpayment of registration in August. Practically the only proof that it was ever around is its Amazon page, which bears the ironic tagline “Feed and Go: Your reliable partner.”
In place of reviews, the page is now filled with Feed and Go users mulling class-action lawsuits, sharing horror stories of what happened when they couldn’t feed their pet, and wondering why the company didn’t at least try a different business model to save itself. “I would have been happy to pay $5 or $10 a month to at least keep it working,” said one.
Raising blood pressure
But in the IoT era, we are uniquely vulnerable to the whims of business decisions, which brings me to my next example. A few months after the Feed and Go debacle, my two-year-old Omron blood pressure monitor stopped working as intended. Because the company killed the app to which it was supposed to connect.
Here was a case with actual medical impact. I have borderline hypertension, so getting regular readings is essential. The Omron app connected to the Apple Health app, which was able to update my GP with the readings as they came in.
The company didn’t need to shut down the app because it was going out of business. Quite the opposite: It wanted me to upgrade to a new app, one that pushed hard for you to buy into a subscription service called a “Premium Protection Plan.” Dig down into the new app, and you discover that it only works with the two most recent models of the Omron blood pressure monitor, neither of which was my model.
In other words, it was an IoT shakedown — an attempt by a company that owns 50 percent of the global blood pressure monitor market to force me to buy a brand new $70-plus gadget and a $99-a-year subscription, one that provided me with nothing more than a “personalized monthly heart health report” and “unlimited cloud storage” of my readings. Premium Protection Plan indeed.
It would have been simple, a trivial expense, for the company to keep the old app up and running for its legacy customers. The company chose not to do this, and pointed all users toward the new app instead. Incensed, I went out and bought a rival product, a monitor and app combo called Balance Health, which hasn’t gone out of business or tried to shake me down yet. (We’ve reached out to Omron for comment.)
Perhaps these are teething troubles in the relatively new world of IoT. Perhaps companies will realize that they drive their customers away with this kind of behavior. Perhaps the industry is still in flux and has yet to shake out all its money-losing services and startups.
Or perhaps this is the new normal — a world of device insecurity, where you’re never entirely sure if your extremely online gadgets will live to see another day.