My Internet-Connected Home-Gadget Hell

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Your home is going to be internet-connected sooner than you think. Between Google’s announcement last week that it will soon be selling a smart speaker along the lines of Amazon’s Echo, and reports this week that Apple is preparing its own, Siri-branded version, the AI-powered, natural-language-processing speaker is the new front for war among tech’s biggest companies. And your home is going to be collateral damage.

While it’s cool to use speakers to call Uber and play music without pressing any buttons, the real kind of use we’ll be seeing from them in the next few years is in controlling our homes: our thermostats, our security systems, and even our lightbulbs — the “Internet of Things” that consumer-product companies have long envisioned. Or, that’s the promise. As someone who’s found his home slowly eaten by web-connected gadgets, I’m not confident.

Beginning in 2015, I started buying into the Internet of Things without realizing it. First, I got an internet-connected thermostat because the whizbang internet version of my reliable dumb thermostat made the alternatives look boring. The idea of being able to just forget about the thermostat and let it use my phone’s location to decide whether to heat our home was enough to drop the $250 on it without any question. When it arrived in its fancy box, with a bit to plug into my router and a bit to wire up to my old-school thermostat, I was ecstatic. No more wasting gas when we weren’t home, no more resetting the timer if we went on holiday.

At first, I found myself obsessing over the app and my newfound insights into the home. I would check the temperature multiple times a day, as if I needed to know how warm it was inside. As with all home gadgets, my interest eventually waned as it did its job. Eventually, I forgot about the thermostat — until its “smart” features started failing gradually. One time I arrived home to a bitterly cold house, about 10°C (50°F), wondering what had gone wrong — it turned out the internet had gone down while I was away, so the thermostat hadn’t bothered to do anything.

This would eventually become a recurring theme with my thermostat. In the middle of winter it began disconnecting, frequently overnight — even when there was a solid internet connection — and didn’t have a backup mode. I’d wake up seeing my own breath, then spend hours rebooting the thermostat, boiler, and router to get it working again. The only way to control the gadget is via the app, so when it breaks you’re really screwed.

The thermostat company later released a second version of its device with a wall control to avoid that no-backup-when-app-breaks situation, but it was another $150 on top of what I’d already spent trying to bring smarts to my heating. Out of frustration, I got it anyway.

While this solution was better, it wasn’t perfect. Sure, I could control it from the wall, but if the internet went down while the boiler was firing, the thermostat would lock itself in “full heat” mode in some sort of disjointed effort to keep the pipes from freezing. Not a problem, I guess, until the house is suddenly a balmy 27 degrees Celsius with no warning or way to fix it without just mindlessly restarting devices.

Gradually, I came into possession of a few other internet-connected widgets. A Philips Hue smart light that supposedly could liven up a party by changing colors through an app, and a Canary home security system that promised to update me whenever something happened while I was away.

As with the thermostat, smart lighting started out blissfully — “look at all the great colors I can do with my light bulbs!” — and eventually fell into the absurd. When the first firmware update rolled around, it was exciting, until I spent an hour trying to update lightbulbs. Nobody warned me that being an adult would mean wasting my waking hours updating Linux on a set of lightbulbs, rebooting them until they’d take the latest firmware. The future is great.

As for my home security system, the device itself is one of the better ones I’ve bought into — it generally just works, though it’s constantly sending me push notifications when it detects my pets while I’m away, with no way to fine-tune it.

When I first got a Canary, the system was a one-off purchase for the hardware and came with a free online service for saving videos of incidents in your home. Handy, but not exactly a sustainable business model — I didn’t really think anything of it, though, until late 2015, when a firmware update touted that I’d need to pay a monthly fee to keep those videos.

Suddenly, a device I’d purchased to keep track of the house was demanding I pay endlessly in order to do the thing I’d bought it to do. Sure, they’d give me free videos for 24 hours, but after that they’re gone forever. We’re buying into business models that don’t make any sense — Nest, for example, eventually needs to figure out better ways to monetize you, be it through a subscription service or just selling off your data.

A one-time purchase of a smart device isn’t a sustainable plan for companies that need to run servers to support those devices. Not only are you buying into a smart device that might not turn out to be as smart as you thought, it’s possible it’ll just stop working in two years or so when the company goes under or gets acquired.

The Internet of Things right now is a mess. It’s being built by scrappy startups with delusions of grandeur, but no backup plan for when connectivity fails, or consideration for if their business models reach out more than a year or two — leaving you and me at risk.

Before you buy that “smart” gadget this year, consider who’s behind it, if the business is sustainable and if it has a fallback for when things go wrong. In many cases, the companies behind these slickly marketed gadgets have no answer for any of those concerns.

Despite my disdain and occasional bad experiences so far, I see connected devices as having a lot of potential. Sure, they’re in an awkward, prolonged adolescent phase, much like virtual reality in the early 1990s, but eventually refinement will come. But as companies wrestle for control and figure out the business model as they go, it’s painful to be dragged along for the ride. Perhaps for now it’s better if we all wait it out for a while — until a clear winner Internet-of-Things service emerges and offers reliability — before wildly connecting everything inside our homes.

The Internet of Shit is a pseudonymous Twitter account that started as a jab at the Internet of Things, but later became one of the strongest critics of the ‘smart’ devices creeping into our homes. Now, IoS works to expose the poorly designed devices rapidly coming into our homes.