The smart home is still dealing with issues related to its devices and the way they break down. The problem does not lie within the interoperability of the devices but rather within the behavior of the hardware as if it were software. Unlike traditional hardware that fails in predictable ways, software can fail in unpredictable ways, making it difficult for consumers to rely on their connected devices. This disconnect leaves consumers feeling as though they don’t truly own their devices and can’t trust them to function as promised. In order to improve the situation for consumers, both manufacturers and regulatory bodies must take action.
When consumers purchase connected devices, they expect them to function as traditional hardware. However, when these devices break, it isn’t in the typical ways that hardware breaks, such as a shattering or a burnout. Instead, they break in unexpected ways, such as when the smart home controller stops communicating with a light bulb, or when the company behind the device goes out of business and stops providing software support. Additionally, changes in company policies, such as requiring users to create an account to use a product or cutting off API access, can also lead to the failure of connected devices.
The issue with the smart home is that the failure of devices often stems from changes in business agreements rather than from physical or mechanical failures. In the digital world, contract disputes between companies are common, but in the physical world, consumers are accustomed to products breaking in accordance with laws of physics or chemistry, rather than due to contract law. However, as more devices become connected to the internet, there is a growing need to preserve the functionality of these devices even as business agreements evolve.
Manufacturers can take steps to address these issues, such as treating connected devices as a subscription service rather than a one-time purchase, setting up advance agreements with partners to ensure a product works for a set amount of time, or enabling devices to function locally without the need to connect to a remote server. Additionally, regulatory measures can be put in place to protect consumers from unexpected issues with smart devices. There are three potential policy options in consideration, including the involvement of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the creation of a cybersecurity labeling program, and the implementation of a federal right-to-repair law.
The FTC has the power to prevent unfair and deceptive acts or practices and can intervene when connected devices break in unanticipated ways. In 2016, the FTC investigated Google’s decision to shut down the Revolv hub, determining that while Google was allowed to shut down the product, manufacturers need to consider several questions when building a smart product. These questions address the nature of the product being sold, consumer expectations, and the security provided for the life of the device. While the FTC’s ability to intervene in such cases is helpful, it can be challenging to determine whether the practices are causing harm or are deceptive to consumers.
Overall, the issue of connected devices breaking in unexpected ways is a complex and multifaceted problem that requires both manufacturers and regulators to play a role in addressing it. To effectively enhance the reliability of connected devices for consumers, it is essential to prioritize the consumer experience and establish clear expectations for the functionality and longevity of smart devices.