Trust and the Internet of Things

Alphabet’s subsidiary Nest has gotten a fair bit of bad press lately after it announced that the Revolv hub would cease functioning as of May 15th, 2016. Developed by the start-up Revolv – acquired by Nest in October 2014 – the Revolv hub is a home automation gateway supporting a wide range of protocols and standards. Until now, the teams behind the Revolv hub had kept the product alive, allowing users to control their home appliances with a smartphone app.

Dubbed by Revolv as the ‘most powerful home automation hub on earth’, the smart home gateway included seven radio protocols to ensure maximum compatibility with existing devices: Z-Wave, Insteon, Wi-Fi, Zigbee, 433/900/915 MHz. The users could connect a wide variety of appliances from manufacturers such as Belkin, Philips, Nest, Sonos, Yale, Insteon, Honeywell, GE, Kwikset… The Revolv app worked as a remote control to pilot their devices or allowed the design of pre-configured scenarios based on geolocation (when leaving or nearing the home), time, and device-to-device interactions.

The decision to shut down the service – announced by a brief note on Revolv’s website – doesn’t impact a significant number of households given the limited user base (the start-up stopped selling its product after its acquisition by Nest, an early warning that trouble was afoot.) But it raises legitimate concerns about the sustainability of smart home solutions. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Revolv had started shipping devices in November 2013, along with a ‘lifetime subscription’ to the service (the app requires connectivity to Revolv’s servers). Yet less than three years later, the service will stop working completely. Consumer trust towards smart home solutions will likely take a hit at a time when Nest is developing its own ‘Works with Nest’ program aimed at broadening the ecosystem of devices compatible with the thermostat. Once bitten, twice shy…

The issue here is not about consolidation, which is bound to happen in the crowded IoT market, but whether customers can trust suppliers enough to spend significant money on a solution that could stop working overnight. IoT solutions rely on many components –devices, access points, servers, Cloud storage, APIs, data analytics, etc.- which can be hard or (likely) impossible to substitute in the case of closed and vertically integrated solutions.

If we take the example of Revolv, the devices may still be in working condition, but users nevertheless end up with a useless red brick. Some may argue that controlling lights and heating with your smartphone is not that critical to the end user, but the longevity of IoT solutions will truly be vital as e-health services gain traction. If someone relies on a health monitoring appliance, what happens if the service is discontinued? And what happens to the accumulated data in the cloud?

Other connected products have ceased functioning in the past, but in many cases customers could still use them one way or another. The connected rabbit Nabaztag/Karotz can still function thanks to workarounds developed by the users community. Pluzzy, Toshiba’s home automation system is now managed and maintained by the sub-contractor Ijenko. And when Aether pulled the plug on their Cloud service Rido, they updated the device firmware so customers could still use them as Bluetooth/Airplay speakers.

The Revolv/Nest affair shines a light on the limits of non-service models for IoT, or at least for smart home applications. If there is no subscription, then the incentive for the device provider to keep the device alive dwindles over time. This is where existing service providers such as telecom or cable operators have a play. Provided, as Benoit pointed out last week, that they can build sufficient trust from their customers to be the trusted party in this equation.