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Why Nest will brick your $300 Revolv hub next month

The advent of the Internet of Things has raised a number of issues that consumers and service providers alike haven't really had to deal with before. For example, how do you prevent a Barbie doll from being hacked? And what do you do when a company discontinues service on a connected device to the point of disabling it remotely and rendering it useless?

The latter is reportedly about to happen to customers who bought Revolv, a $300 smart home hub that lets you control appliances and home automation systems with a centralized app. Google sister company Nest bought Revolv in October 2014 and then stopped selling its hubs, but continued to provide the app and customer service for whoever bought one.

But as of May 15th, Nest will shut Revolv down completely, which will effectively render all existing hubs useless. Or, as the Revolv FAQ puts it: "The Revolv app won’t open and the hub won’t work."

While the shutdown won’t affect all that many people, the people who will be affected may not appreciate their $300 appliance suddenly ceasing to work. Arlo Gilbert, CEO of medical app company Televero and a Revolv customer, is furious, and publicly complained on Medium this week that Google is “intentionally bricking hardware that I own”.

After Gilbert’s post went viral, Nest responded, saying it will work with Revolv customers to resolve the situation, which could include compensation, reports The Verge.

But Gilbert raises a bigger issue worth considering: if Nest can do this with Revolv, why stop there?:

This move by Google opens up an entire host of concerns about other Google hardware.

Which hardware will Google choose to intentionally brick next? If they stop supporting Android will they decide that the day after the last warranty expires that your phone will go dark? Is your Nexus device safe? What about your Nest fire/smoke alarm? What about your Dropcam? What about your Chromecast device? Will Google/Nest endanger your family at some point?

All of those devices have software and hardware that are inextricably linked. When does an expired warranty become a right to disable core device functionality?

Imagine if you bought a Dell computer and Dell then informed you that when your warranty ends your computer will power down.

Imagine if Apple put out a new policy that not only won’t they replace the device for defects, but they will actually be bricking your phone 12 months after purchase.

These are good questions.

We’ve seen a similar dilemma before on the digital content front with DRM, which has the benefit of preventing piracy but with the tradeoff of giving the DRM owner the ability to, say, delete your content.

Perhaps the most famous example is when Amazon remotely deleted copies George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles because the third-party bookseller didn’t have the rights to the book in the US. Much of the controversy at the time stemmed partly from the fact that customers had no idea Amazon had the ability – let alone the right – to delete content they had already paid for. But it also illustrated a huge gap between Amazon’s vision of the e-book experience and customer expectations that digital content should be a permanent purchase like physical content such as printed books and DVDs.

The Revolv shutdown appears to be raising a similar scenario for the hardware space – when we buy connected things, do we own them, or do we use them only for as long as the manufacturer or retailer decides, or until the warranty expires?

These questions will matter in the coming age of the Internet of Things where much of the software functionality will be in the cloud – and especially when major OS players like Google and Apple are creating expansive software ecosystems that will be used on a wide variety of gadgets, from smartphones and watches to TV sets, home appliances and cars. 

Of course Google isn't going to brick your car. The point is that IoT ecosystem players need to think carefully about how to handle situations like product/service end-of-life policies in the future and manage customer expectations accordingly – and proactively. Hopefully the Revolv episode will serve as an example of how not to handle it.