To many of us, the Internet of Things is a sun-soaked, blue-sky future: a vision of connected devices silently whirring behind the scenes, anticipating and satisfying all of our needs and desires.
Unfortunately, this week was a sad reminder that this future is still far away.
A few days ago, Austin entrepreneur Arlo Gilbert shed light on a recent Alphabet/Nest decision: on May 15th, Nest will discontinue supporting Revolv, a home automation hub they acquired 17 months prior. In his own words, “Google is intentionally bricking hardware that I own.”
Arlo seemingly struck a nerve with that post, which has already been shared thousands of times on Medium alone, sparking additional coverage.
This all has triggered a flood of backlash not just to Nest, but also to the Internet of Things in general, already threatening to derail our still nascent industry.
In the world of mobile and web apps, this happens all the time. There are a countless number of examples where a mobile/web startup consumers loved was acquired, and then had their product shut down by the new overlords. One should almost expect it to happen.
Yet this time it feels different. Mobile and web apps are nearly always free. But hardware costs real money, a lot more than even your average paid app. In this case, the hardware cost a few hundred dollars that Revolv customers spent investing in the connected home vision that the company was pitching. A vision that may still materialize, but not with the Revolv hub. Revolv customers bet on the wrong smart home horse, even though this particular horse found itself a home in one of today’s most well-funded stables.
The Internet of Questions
The Internet of Things, for all its promise, raises some serious questions that we, both as consumers and as IoT companies, are still not well equipped to answer: When a customer buys a product from a connected hardware company, what accountability does that company have to that customer? Does the customer even own the device? And what kind of connected future are we headed towards if many of our devices end up as useless bricks?
The foremost question is around minimum utility: what rights does the customer have when it comes to being able to use a device they purchased? This question is especially important in today’s world where every hardware company seemingly wants you not only to buy their device but also buy into their entire ecosystem.
If I spend $700 on a new connected juicer — one that only works on its own vegetable packs but not actual vegetables, and even then only if it is connected to WiFi — what is the minimum length of service I should expect post-purchase? And should it be the company’s responsibility to make that known during purchase?
Even then, how do hardware companies guarantee that these devices work as planned, without debilitating hiccups? Because this is not the first time a home automation hub became inoperable. Almost exactly one year ago, customers of Wink came home to find that their $50 hubs had stopped working, seemingly because of an expired certificate.
And further, when someone buys a device, what exactly are they paying for? Is it full control over the hardware, or, as in the case of John Deere last year, is it just a license to operate the device for the life of that device? If I spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new tractor, should I have the right to fix it when it breaks down? (John Deere’s lawyers would argue no.)
As we replace our boring everyday objects with their connected device descendants — and as IoT companies, as we ask consumers to adopt our products for all their bells and whistles — we need to ensure that the world we’re creating isn’t one made of broken promises.
Minimum Reliable Product
For years, the startup community has been worshipping at the altar of the Minimum Viable Product; others have taken that a step further with the Minimum Awesome Product.
In the IoT world, we need to take that yet another step further with the notion of a “Minimum Reliable Product.”
As IoT companies, when a customer buys one of our products, we need to account for how long we plan on supporting that product, and clearly communicate that to the customer. Even more, when we think about device lifetimes, we should be aware of the replacement cycles of the devices we are replacing: e.g., what is a reasonable lifetime for a connected oven? A connected alarm system? A connected car?
Some companies present this to their customer by focusing on selling a service, where buying the physical product up front also pays for a certain number of months of service. That is an option that works for certain products, if communicated well.
Other companies have designed a fall back mode, where even if their service ends, or even if the company goes out of business, the device is still capable of performing a subset of its initial functions. Again, that can also work for the right kind of product.
So what is a Minimum Reliable Product?
In other words, a Minimum Reliable Product is an explicit promise to the customer that the hardware company will keep. A promise which we at iobeam are already helping our business partners fulfill.
Because, as IoT companies, we need to be clear on what we’re offering our customers, and for how long. And as consumers, we need to be aware of what we’re buying, and how long we can expect it to work.
If you believe in the future of the Internet of Things, then please join us in building and demanding Minimum Reliable Products.
Nest, for their part, later announced that it may offer some sort of compensation to Revolv users for bricking their devices. That’s a start. But damage control by itself is not a viable product strategy.
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