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Control & Automation

The Over-Dramatization and Lessons of the Google, Nest, Revolv IoT Thing

Nest finally bricks ill-fated Revolv home automation hub. World damns Tony Fadell, IoT, Google, Alphabet, the cloud, greed and the inability to control landscape lighting, but there are bigger lessons to be learned.

The Over-Dramatization and Lessons of the Google, Nest, Revolv IoT Thing
People are calling Nest founder and CEO Tony Fadell the devil, and decrying the end of IoT, but the bricking of Revolv was little more than the last chapter of a start-up that shut down one year after launch.

Julie Jacobson · April 15, 2016

It seems the whole world is angry at Google, Nest, Tony Fadell and the Internet of Things (IoT) in general because the ill-fated Revolv home automation hub – purchased by dozens if not scores of consumers --  is going dark.  

Fine, be mad at these people and things, but not necessarily because Nest intentionally “bricked” (i.e., made a worthless brick of) the red plastic boxes that were Revolv. Instead, be mad about the silly hype surrounding these people and things.

And be mad at yourselves, consumers and home technologists, for believing it.

Now You See it, Now You Don’t

In October 2014, before it gained much momentum, start-up Revolv was acquired by Nest, which was then part of Google, which is now Alphabet.

Launched in mid-2013, Revolv made a smart-home hub with seven on-board radios that promised to support virtually every home automation protocol/platform on the planet, including Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Lutron ClearConnect, Bluetooth, Insteon, X10 and security-centric services at 433 and 915 MHz.

Most of the promised IoT services never materialized, but that’s irrelevant here, except for the fact that the overabundance of radios, promises and technobabble repelled consumers and continues to taint the market for smart-home solutions. (See: "What Went Wrong with Revolv? Theories on Home Automation Hubs".)

By all accounts, Revolv sold precious few boxes by mass-market standards, but they had quite a good product in terms of user interface and back-end services, according to “my people” who know about these things.

When Nest acquired Revolv in October 2014, they quite publicly shut down the operation, grabbed the talent and put them to work on other Googly things like Works with Nest, and maybe Thread, Brillo, Weave (the Google one) and Weave (the separate and incompatible Nest one).

Nest was unambiguous about the end of Revolv. The announcement this month that Nest would disable the requisite cloud service that makes Revolv work – 1.5 years after Revolv’s death sentence -- should be no surprise.

Revolv’s original warranty on hardware was one year, which Nest apparently honored. All warranties have now expired. Revolv services will cease on May 15, 2016. Customer and product data will be erased. The product will become useless. Nest advises current Revolv customers to email help@revolv.com to “help you out during this transition and provide you with a refund of the purchase price of your Revolv hub.”

Revolv, Nest Ire is Misplaced

The bricking of Revolv is a big bummer, at worst a crying shame. But I don’t believe it’s “a pretty appalling way to treat customers,” which is how the UK-based Open Rights Group describes it.

It’s only “appalling” because Google’s name is attached to it.

But Revolv isn’t Nest or Google. Revolv was always a start-up, and it failed like most start-ups do. It just so happens that some of its assets were acquired by a big company that everyone loves to hate, especially lately with those unflattering characterizations of Nest and its founder Tony Fadell. (The Information broke the big story, but only for subscribers. Also read this account from Dropcam founder and former CEO Greg Duffy.)

Here’s my thinking: Revolv was a start-up in a category (IoT) that is a start-up itself. If you knew what IoT was when you bought a Revolv hub for $300, then you knew the risks. If you didn’t know what IoT was, then you probably should have kept your wallet shut.


NEXT: What Went Wrong with Revolv? Theories on Home Automation Hubs


Yeah, I’m the one who rolls her eyes every time a crowd-funder cries foul over a bad bet. I’m just mean that way.

Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights, tells Business Insider, “If hardware may cease to be functional beyond a certain date, this needs to be clear at the time of purchase. Relying on a warranty provision to disable a product would seem to be an unclear and rather dishonest approach."

How, pray tell, would any start-up know how long their product or service will hold up … how long their business will survive … how long a market trend will persist … and especially how long a nascent technology will stay relevant?

They wouldn’t know. The reseller wouldn’t know. And the consumer certainly wouldn’t know.

You take your chances, and then you make safer choices next time.

Real Lessons of Revolv

True, the impending Revolv shut-down was handled inelegantly, but it now appears the offenders will refund the purchase price of the hub, or provide some other remedy to the aggrieved parties.

There are certainly lessons here about graceful exits, as Stacey Higginbotham suggests, but the public outcry over a dead box, and Wired’s declaration, “You’re Crazy to Buy Into the Internet of Things,” are a little melodramatic, don’t you think?

Revolv customer Arlo Gilbert laments:

On May 15th my house will stop working. My landscape lighting will stop turning on and off, my security lights will stop reacting to motion, and my home made vacation burglar deterrent will stop working. This is a conscious intentional decision by Google/Nest.

And this is coming from a self-proclaimed “home automation nut” living in a “geekdom.”

Lesson #1: Don’t ever rely on automation to control mission-critical systems like lighting, security and thermostats. Automation should be an adjunct to your home electronics, not a captor.

All subsystems should be controllable manually.

I have a ceiling fan that came with the house we bought. The fan no longer can be controlled with the companion RF remote, rather by some ghost that decides to turn it on at will. Never off. That requires a flip of the breaker switch.

The darn thing has no manual controls on the fan itself, no pull-chains dangling from the housing. That’s dumb. Make sure your smart devices have danglies.

Meanwhile, look for home automation solutions that offer local intelligence, so the attached devices continue to enjoy some level of centralized control even if the cloud service shuts down. Revolv was not such a solution.

Lesson #2: Be wary of smart-home start-ups. Almost all of them fail. Maybe the products per se don’t fail, but the businesses fail, and so goes the product.

Lesson #3: Don’t build a “security system” out of a multipurpose home automation hub … especially from a start-up. Build a security system out of a security system, and then tie it into the hub (or cloud) for additional functionality.

Lesson #4: Don’t trust the retailer. Home Depot was the rollout partner for Revolv, and Wink after that. They vet new products and vendors as thoroughly as they can, but no one can ever tell how a young manufacturer will fare in the longer term.

Don’t infer a level of legitimacy just because you see a product on a trusted retailer’s shelves. Best Buy went with Peq, which went nowhere. Staples Connect … well.

The same caveat goes for product reviewers, who also wouldn’t know the long-term prospects of any given product or company – start-up or otherwise. We can only presume.

Lesson #5: Consider a home-technology professional to recommend products and oversee your installation and integration. At the very least, they can suggest measures to mitigate damage from such things as Internet loss and product obsolescence. Also, they can respond quickly to disruptions with product substitutions and system re-configuration, often remotely.

There are a whole lot of caveats to this “Lesson" (see below), the least of which is finding a pro that actually supports DIY-type systems. And even if a pro convinces you to go with an established pro-oriented manufacturer, there’s no guarantee the pro will stay in business to support it.

IoT isn't Dead

Writing for Wired, Klint Finley claims, “Nest’s Hub Shutdown Proves You’re Crazy to Buy into the Internet of Things.”

Nah, you’re not crazy, but you should be cautious and heed the lessons above.

What really needs to happen is less on the product side – there’s plenty of good stuff today and in the pipeline -- and more on the infrastructure side, namely service and support. In fact, we’re seeing progress in several areas.

Centralized and comprehensive support for the DIY smart home. Smart-home support from companies like PlumChoice, Support.com and so many others are coming along nicely. They’re training reps on IoT integration so they can help consumers troubleshoot systems and, here again, mitigate disruptions when a product in your ecosystem goes offline, whether temporarily or for good.

Paralleling development in tech-support is the swift development of hardware and cloud services for remotely monitoring, diagnosing and automatically repairing problems in the smart home.

Ihiji has been a pioneer in the higher-end home-control market. Krika and Domotz were my first two discoveries in the broader market, but new ones are arriving at a furious pace.

Start-up Digital Butler promises support throughout the supply chain, from the consumer to the installer to the service provider and even the insurance agency.

Professional home-technology services. The network of some 20,000 professional home technology integrators, represented by the trade organization CEDIA and served by CE Pro, represents an obvious channel for dispensing advice, specifying product, installing systems in the home and providing long-term support.

It would be nice if they could convince all consumers to select time-tested solutions from vendors that specialize in the smart home and integration (just as the integrators themselves do).

I can tell you all day long that an integrated system, professionally installed, can end up being cheaper and better in the long term than a bunch of products cobbled together by a do-it-yourselfer and his able brother-in-law in IT.

But do-it-yourselfers will be do-it-yourselfers. Unfortunately, this so-called CEDIA channel is not really equipped for today’s mass-marketization of home automation. Business models are adjusting, however, and we’re seeing some integrators start to support, if not build a business around, DIYs and their smart-home projects.

In the meantime, national installation services like InstallerNet and Installs Inc. are combining feet-on-the-street with back-end support for the smart home.

We’re likely to see big TV and mobile service providers like Dish Network, Comcast and AT&T rise to the occasion as well.

Soon, very soon, we’ll see on-demand delivery of home-tech products and services from armies of part-time technologists who know a thing or two about this stuff.

Insurance. The insurance industry is making plans to rule the smart home, and some major innovations are emerging from that sector – things like “black boxes” for the home, not unlike we see in cars today.

What would really make sense is for an entirely new insurance and/or warranty service to emerge, protecting consumers against technology obsolescence – similar to how cellular service providers basically “insure” the longevity of smart phones through upgrade programs.

Consumers opt into the program by paying more per month than they would if they brought their own phones.

Smart-home insurance providers would work with both manufacturers and consumers for short-term protections against product/feature/company failures, as well as longer term obsolescence.

Once the other pieces of the service ecosystem (described above) fall into place, insurance companies could pull it off. Consumers might then be more willing to purchase risky solutions if they don’t need to worry: “What if I spend all this time and money building up a smart home based on Revolv … and Revolv shuts down?”

What a fun time to be an actuary!

Note: Many of these themes will be explored at Parks Associates' Connections Conference, May 24-26, 2016, in San Francisco. See you there!


Next: Target, Sears and the Trouble with Home Automation at Retail


Recommended

Nest Acquires Revolv DIY Smart Hub, Shuts It Down

What Went Wrong with Revolv? Theories on Home Automation Hubs

With Market Confusion over DIY Home Automation, Revolv Courts Pros with New Programs, Features

‘Hello Julie, This is John. I Have Some Questions about Home Automation’

Target, Sears and the Trouble with Home Automation at Retail

Wink, Home Depot Aim to ‘Take Confusion Out’ of Home Automation

We Need Disruptive Business Practices, Not Disruptive Technology



  About the Author

Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Email Julie at jjacobson@ehpub.com

Follow Julie on social media:
Twitter · LinkedIn · Google+

Julie also participates in these groups:
LinkedIn · Google+

View Julie Jacobson's complete profile.



  Article Topics


Control & Automation · Automation · Lighting · Whole House Control · Security · Monitoring · News · Blogs · Products · Alphabet · Google · Insurance · Nest · Revolv · All Topics
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Comments

Posted by Harald Steindl on April 17, 2016

I think the bigger troubles of home automation will surface in the years to come. Lets face it: Buildings (both residential as well as commercial do have a way longer replacement cycle than all those technologies we all embrace so much.

How many of our customers really understand that the investment is not over as soon as the integrator leaves the shiny new installation? That the real luxury is not the price they paid now but the price they will have to pay in the coming years for replacing the technology much much more often than there old switches on the wall.

Posted by Julie Jacobson on April 17, 2016

JerryS, I re-read the story to see if it sounds too harsh against start-ups, worthy of a revision, but I think I’m going to have to stand by my statement to “be wary of smart home start-ups.” It’s one thing to take a risk on subscribing to a new magazine that might not be interesting ... or advertising in a magazine that may not provide leads (just cancel) ... or even buying a few smart bulbs from a startup. It’s another thing to base a complete whole-house system on a new DIY hub, as there are many devices to connect and a lot of configuration.

Yes, I would be more wary of smart-home start-ups vs. established companies, even though there’s no guarantee that the most senior suppliers will stay in business or that their products will keep working.

All of us at CE Pro celebrate start-ups in our field, and will continue to highlight new companies and new innovations, regardless of their likelihood to succeed. We all learn from failures as well as successes.

Fact is, most of the start-ups we write about will dissolve within one or two years, whether they’re touting new products, business services or simply new ways of doing business.  Thank goodness for all of us that they try.

In any case, thanks for keeping us honest.

Posted by Joseph Kolchinsky on April 15, 2016

Fantastic article, Julie.  Consumers are misdirected by manufacturers into believing that this is DIY, and they will continue to be pushed into that direction by the industry until it’s forced not to.  I agree business models need to adapt, but I also believe that we need a more rigid structure.  I heard an Amazon exec the other day at a roundtable say that “technology should be simple and easy like electricity”, to which I responded that until tech is regulated/standardized like electricity (which requires a license/certification, training, parts and protocols are standardized, etc) we won’t see that day.  Until some sort of structure is in place (maybe regulation?  maybe industry collaboration/standardization) that requires some sort of forced pathway to installation and support, home technology professionals will always have an uphill battle and IoT will continue to generate these types of experiences.  In this environment, technology is deceptively inexpensive because total cost of ownership is unknown to the average user, and hidden by the manufacturer with DIY marketing tactics.

@JerryS - I believe Julie was simply making the point that these experiences shouldn’t be a surprise to consumers.  It’s wonderful that Revolv came about, was supported by the customer, and the knowledge gained adopted by Google - but no one should be up in arms about a new entrant on the IoT stage not lasting indefinitely.

Posted by JerryS on April 15, 2016

Julie, I wish you would go back and look at your posts for the last year or two.  Almost all have the same tenor as this one - “use start-ups at your own risk” (or worse).  It’s not what I would call support.  If I had gotten the same recommendation about CEPro, I wouldn’t be a subscriber.  And if I were interested in advertising, I certainly would be looking elsewhere.
For someone who claims to be FOR startups, you seem to have a lot of negative comments, and very few positive ones.

Posted by Julie Jacobson on April 15, 2016

On the contrary, I’m 100% FOR start-ups! Just be cautious is all. The same applies to dealers taking on new products and mfrs. What’s the rush? Bring them in-house and test them for a while before spec’ing them. In this case, a DIYer who should have known better was crying foul because a start-up didn’t meet his expectations.

Woot Woot. Go startups!

Posted by JerryS on April 15, 2016

Julie, I know you are 100% against startups.  But need I remind you that EVERY COMPANY - including CEPro - was once a startup.
And the pro channel *could* handle the mass market - if the need were there.  However, too many people aren’t willing to pay for pros to do it properly, and would rather screw things up themselves.  Unfortunately, places like Best Buy, Loews, Home Depot and even Sears make it sound much easier than it is.
Yes, you have to be careful, and dealing with any startup is always a risk.  However, if no one ever supported a startup, no startups would ever succeed.

Posted by JerryS on April 15, 2016

Julie, I know you are 100% against startups.  But need I remind you that EVERY COMPANY - including CEPro - was once a startup.
And the pro channel *could* handle the mass market - if the need were there.  However, too many people aren’t willing to pay for pros to do it properly, and would rather screw things up themselves.  Unfortunately, places like Best Buy, Loews, Home Depot and even Sears make it sound much easier than it is.
Yes, you have to be careful, and dealing with any startup is always a risk.  However, if no one ever supported a startup, no startups would ever succeed.

Posted by Julie Jacobson on April 15, 2016

On the contrary, I’m 100% FOR start-ups! Just be cautious is all. The same applies to dealers taking on new products and mfrs. What’s the rush? Bring them in-house and test them for a while before spec’ing them. In this case, a DIYer who should have known better was crying foul because a start-up didn’t meet his expectations.

Woot Woot. Go startups!

Posted by JerryS on April 15, 2016

Julie, I wish you would go back and look at your posts for the last year or two.  Almost all have the same tenor as this one - “use start-ups at your own risk” (or worse).  It’s not what I would call support.  If I had gotten the same recommendation about CEPro, I wouldn’t be a subscriber.  And if I were interested in advertising, I certainly would be looking elsewhere.
For someone who claims to be FOR startups, you seem to have a lot of negative comments, and very few positive ones.

Posted by Joseph Kolchinsky on April 15, 2016

Fantastic article, Julie.  Consumers are misdirected by manufacturers into believing that this is DIY, and they will continue to be pushed into that direction by the industry until it’s forced not to.  I agree business models need to adapt, but I also believe that we need a more rigid structure.  I heard an Amazon exec the other day at a roundtable say that “technology should be simple and easy like electricity”, to which I responded that until tech is regulated/standardized like electricity (which requires a license/certification, training, parts and protocols are standardized, etc) we won’t see that day.  Until some sort of structure is in place (maybe regulation?  maybe industry collaboration/standardization) that requires some sort of forced pathway to installation and support, home technology professionals will always have an uphill battle and IoT will continue to generate these types of experiences.  In this environment, technology is deceptively inexpensive because total cost of ownership is unknown to the average user, and hidden by the manufacturer with DIY marketing tactics.

@JerryS - I believe Julie was simply making the point that these experiences shouldn’t be a surprise to consumers.  It’s wonderful that Revolv came about, was supported by the customer, and the knowledge gained adopted by Google - but no one should be up in arms about a new entrant on the IoT stage not lasting indefinitely.

Posted by Julie Jacobson on April 17, 2016

JerryS, I re-read the story to see if it sounds too harsh against start-ups, worthy of a revision, but I think I’m going to have to stand by my statement to “be wary of smart home start-ups.” It’s one thing to take a risk on subscribing to a new magazine that might not be interesting ... or advertising in a magazine that may not provide leads (just cancel) ... or even buying a few smart bulbs from a startup. It’s another thing to base a complete whole-house system on a new DIY hub, as there are many devices to connect and a lot of configuration.

Yes, I would be more wary of smart-home start-ups vs. established companies, even though there’s no guarantee that the most senior suppliers will stay in business or that their products will keep working.

All of us at CE Pro celebrate start-ups in our field, and will continue to highlight new companies and new innovations, regardless of their likelihood to succeed. We all learn from failures as well as successes.

Fact is, most of the start-ups we write about will dissolve within one or two years, whether they’re touting new products, business services or simply new ways of doing business.  Thank goodness for all of us that they try.

In any case, thanks for keeping us honest.

Posted by Harald Steindl on April 17, 2016

I think the bigger troubles of home automation will surface in the years to come. Lets face it: Buildings (both residential as well as commercial do have a way longer replacement cycle than all those technologies we all embrace so much.

How many of our customers really understand that the investment is not over as soon as the integrator leaves the shiny new installation? That the real luxury is not the price they paid now but the price they will have to pay in the coming years for replacing the technology much much more often than there old switches on the wall.