Memo to Nest: How 3 connected hardware companies killed their devices
This week’s biggest news so far has been Nest’s decision to kill off Revolv, a smart home hub product that Nest purchased in 2014. At the time of the October 2014 acquisition, Revolv told its users that the deal meant Revolv would stop selling its $299 hub and customer support would stop in a year. A few days ago, users learned that Nest was not only ceasing support but that their devices would stop working on May 15, 2016.
For a product with fewer than 10,000 units sold, the news has had an outsized impact on conversations around connected devices. Wired said this should prevent consumers from buying into the internet of things. This is a black eye for the connected home, and the worst part is, it didn’t have to be that way. Nest’s decision to turn off functionality for the Revolv hub isn’t the first time a company has decided to stop supporting a connected device.
This is a black eye for the connected home, and the worst part is, it didn’t have to be that way.
The key in doing so is communicating your decision to users in a clear manner. For example, when Beep Networks CEO Daniel Conrad realized that his original business of building a dial to connect people’s speakers to the internet wasn’t going to pan out, he told his 3,000 customers. He sent an email explaining that Beep would stop focusing on that aspect of its business and why. He then explained that customers’ devices would still work but would start losing functionality as partners, such as Pandora and Spotify, changed their code that integrated with the Beep Dial music service. (Listen to Conrad on IoT Podcast #53.)
The email also contained advice for users who wanted the same functionality, but with the newer and cheaper Google Chrome Audio product. He then thanked the users for their support. Beep still runs the servers hosting the Beep Dial, but some of the integrations have broken. Conrad says some customers still use their dials daily.
“As long as we’re honest with users about sunsetting the product, the support cost is very low,” Conrad said via email. “Not sure what Nest is thinking here.”
Conrad’s procedure could have been taken directly from the end of one of the earliest connected devices, the Berg Little Printer. The device was a somewhat silly product that printed out news, puzzles and items from social media feeds. Berg sent out an email in September 2014 explaining that it would have to “go into hibernation,” and explained that while it was easy to close the design consultancy part of its operations, it hated to kill the Little Printer. So it told users it would keep a skeleton staff on hand to support the printer until the end of March. It said it would try to find a buyer for the company and if that didn’t work it would open source the code behind the printer in hopes that the community would support it.
The printer still works for a few today, thanks to the efforts of folks on Github. Both of these examples show how Nest could have handled the Revolv shut down with a bit more grace and less user animosity.
A final example comes from The Orange Chef, the maker of a connected scale that was purchased earlier this year by recipe site Yummly. Santiago Merea, the chief revenue officer at Yummly, told me in December that the company was trying to find a buyer for the hardware business and that until then, he and the other founder would try to keep the code running in a limited fashion.
Customers were not thrilled, but there’s hope that the $150 connected scales don’t become rubbish. Merea cautioned any company building a connected device to design with failure in mind. Zach Supalla, the CEO of Particle, which offers companies a wireless module for connecting their device to the Particle cloud, agrees. He suggests companies think about how to keep their operations going in case of failure.
Other options include creating an escrow account with money and perhaps the source code, that can keep your device operational for a set period of time
One way to do that is to host on a platform (like Particle’s) that hosts other connected devices because the cost of supporting your cast off users is low. Particle hosts 130,000 devices on its cloud and keeping a few thousand more running isn’t expensive. Another way to plan is to open source your code and hope some of your dedicated users decide to keep it running.
Other options include creating an escrow account with money and perhaps the source code, that can keep your device operational for a set period of time after the company is acquired or folded. In the case of Nest, which is a well-funded company, Supalla suggests softening the blow for users if possible by offering a partial or full refund, offering a discount on a Nest product or even working a deal with Samsung to replace the Revolv hub with a comparable SmartThings hub.
On Thursday, a Nest spokesman told NBC that it was working to compensate some users on a “case-by-case basis.”
Still, Supalla is concerned about how Nest has handled this and the effect on the industry. While he says consumers are used to software products getting killed after an acquisition or if it can’t find users, people’s relationship with hardware is more complex.
“They’ve spent a couple hundred bucks on a device,” he says. “Unlike an experience with an app where I am paying with a monthly fee, or paying with my eyeballs by watching ads, when software support ends, it’s easier. There isn’t a big investment I have to undo.”
Despite the example of the above companies, it’s hard to fault Nest for shutting down Revolv. The device was a central meeting point for a variety of connected devices. Like the Beep Dial, it relied on partners’ code to keep functioning for its users, and if engineers stop keeping that code current, most of the hub’s functionality would be lost. It’s harder to gracefully degrade a service like that than, say, a connected printer or food scale.
Nest is clearly experiencing a lot of internal turmoil, and supporting the relatively few Revolv users probably seems like an expense that it could dump. But it should have done a much better job doing so.
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