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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.

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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


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