Technology
When Your Device Breaks Up With You
This article appeared in Make: Vol. 77. Subscribe today to get more great projects delivered to your mailbox.

Imagine you are one of the early backers of a Kickstarter that, like so many of them, promises world-changing benefits in a brand new smart device. You were not only early, waiting for them to build and deliver the promised device, but yours was among the first ones they made. It was a little rough around the edges but you and others gave them feedback and you made it work for you. You were on board. You told others how good it was.

You were happy also when the scrappy team that created the product was acquired by a big company as part of a corporate IoT strategy. You even thought that could be good for you, too, as a customer — more support, more developers, an even better relationship. It felt like backing a band before they became huge.

But things change over time, which is the case for SmartThings, a device that raised $1.2M on Kickstarter in 2013. It was the one smart thing that made all of the other things in your home talk to each other, regardless of what protocol they used. SmartThings became a company that received $12 million in venture capital before it was sold to Samsung in 2014 for a reported $200M. But SmartThings change too.

Steve Texeira received a break-up message in March that his v1 SmartThings Hub would no longer work after June 30, 2021. The message was even more irritating because it bragged about the original world-changing promise of SmartThings to “make every home a smart home.” There are “over 63M users around the world, including you.” Remember those good times, it wants you to understand. It wants you to feel good, even if it is breaking up with you. Your device is being retired, the message says. Retired? Did your smart home future age out?

You just didn’t see it coming. The custom code you developed for it won’t work anymore. Your friends in the user community, who shared code with you, are also gone. You’ll have to start over again.

“It’s just awful when smart home hardware is end-of-lifed, particularly when that hardware is non-trivial to physically install,” Steve wrote on Twitter (find him at twitter.com/stevetex). “ZigBee/Z-Wave devices are notoriously annoying and time consuming to pair with a hub.” We all have had devices that stop working or become outdated because of newer models. But there’s something disturbing about a “smart home” device that retires before you do.

We don’t think much about the end-of-life for technology, or our relationship with the devices we have bought. Steve wrote in a follow-up to me: “I don’t think about my microwave oven getting bricked in a few years, but this is a real concern for many smart devices.” A device dependent on the cloud becomes useless when a company like Samsung decides that it is not part of their future. Steve would like to see stronger consumer protections, a kind of “guaranteed device lifetime or a fallback to a reasonable local-only mode if the cloud service goes away.” Open communities are also needed, such as the Pebble Rebble which rallies support for a discontinued smart watch.

Frankly, it feels a lot better when you decide that your device is not working for you anymore. This is not like that. Here technology is abandoning you, not you abandoning it. You’d like to stay in the relationship but it’s done with you.

In a future with robots in our home, is it possible that they might decide to stop working for us? Will a robot that you thought was yours take all its machine-learning about humans and go off to the cloud somewhere to become a gig worker? When that happens, the robot, on its way out, will remind you that now you have to pick up after yourself, cook for yourself, and learn to do all the things yourself that it once promised to do for you. “Now you must remember to turn off your own lights,” the robot will say, and you’ll be left smarting about your not-so-smart home.

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

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