My favorite bit of tech at CES 2016 wasn’t a 98-inch 8K TV or a car from the future, it was a fridge. Samsung’s $5,000 Smart Family Hub Fridge.
I’m not going to lie, I totally lust after this fridge. It has a huge 21.5-inch touchscreen, cameras on the inside to take photos of your food, and Instacart and FreshDirect integration. It’s bananas.
Now, let’s forget that I live in a small two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn that barely has room for a compact Dishwasher, let alone Samsung’s gorgeous refrigerator of my dreams. (Let’s also forget that I don’t cook and order from Seamless basically every single day.)
Even if I had the room for Samsung’s wonderful fridge of the future, I don’t know if I would be willing to invest $5,000 in it. And that’s not just because $5,000 is a ridiculous amount of money for a refrigerator (unless we’re talking about re-creating Yolanda Foster’s fridge); it’s because I have no trust that this technology will work two, five or 10 years after it’s purchased.
We all know what it is like to buy a tech product that suddenly stops getting updates. That smart TV or connected Blu-ray player you bought five or six years ago stopped working, that BlackBerry tablet you were gifted turned out to be by Blackberry and that e-reader you had lost support for its bookstore.
But those are gadgets. For good or for bad, we’ve come to expect that they will obsolete themselves — often before we are ready to let go. When it comes to stuff you put in your home — like appliances — we just don’t expect this stuff to stop working a few months (or even years) later. After all, the upgrade-cycle for my refrigerator better not be akin to the upgrade cycle on my phone.
And that’s a very real challenge manufacturers and consumers are facing in this new Internet of Things era.
And if I can posit — it might also be why the Internet of Things has failed to take off the way many experts expected it would.
When a smart home isn’t so smart
Even the best, most-successful connected home products aren’t perfect. Take Nest, a company Google acquired for $3.2 billion in 2014.
Almost everyone I know who has a Nest loves it. But that doesn’t mean being connected isn’t sometimes problematic.
Take Nest Protect, its smoke alarm — plenty of users have complained of incessant false alarms and although newer versions have been released to fix those problems, the older units could still be problematic.
And then on Wednesday, The New York Times reported on ongoing issues with the Nest thermostat. Many users awakened to cold homes and Nest thermostat’s that had appeared “offline.”
The company is working on fixing the issue and it says it is operational for 99.5% of its customers — but it raises interesting questions about the connected nature of these devices.
The lack of fallback on many of these devices is problematic, too. Should users really have to have a spare thermostat lying around in case their connected thermostat dies? (Though as one Twitter user found, buying a $25 replacement might just be easier than waiting for tech support.)
And if that IS the sort of burden consumers should accept before entering the world of smart homes and the Internet of Things, is it any surprise adoption is low?
What about security updates?
Product updates or upkeep are one thing — and the lack of future-proofing in many of today’s smart appliances and smart home accessories is a real concern. (To its credit, Google updates its Nest products frequently, even if those updates sometimes leave users in the cold, at least they get updates.)
It’s one thing for a company to not update TV firmware to work with the latest version of Netflix; it’s annoying, but you probably have five other ways to watch Netflix. It’s another if you consider that companies could abandon security updates for products.
Imagine if Heartbleed — a bug that hit popular sites such as Facebook and Google and made a massive amount of personal user data vulnerable — had happened at a time when most of us had connected appliances or accessories in our home. It’s a sobering thought and safety and security isn’t something IoT players like to discuss.
Companies need to treat the home as more than just another gadget
A few years ago, Samsung was really pushing the idea of Evolution Kits to upgrade older TVs with newer features. It was a good concept, but it’s unclear how well this has actually worked. There was no mention of new Evolution Kits at CES 2016.
Still, at least it looked like that division of the company was looking at future-proofing its products.
When it comes to the home, that’s not as evident. Last month, a thread surfaced on Hacker News discussing ongoing problems Samsung customers are having signing into Google calendar on their refrigerators.
It seems Google made some API changes, which has made it difficult for Samsung’s software to work correctly. Customers who call Samsung are told its a Google problem and Google isn’t providing any answers.
I recognize this is a difficult problem for Samsung to solve. Finding a way to support software features on multiple devices that may span across multiple years, especially if one of the problems is with an API endpoint and not on your own end, is beyond challenging.
And yet, this is the sort of challenge that needs to be figured out if anyone is actually going to pay a massive premium for a smart appliance.
For decades, these products have been sold once and that’s it. But with everything connected, there needs to be more of a focus not just on updates but security. And tech support needs to be on alert, in case something does go wrong.
Take my favorite fridge — the Smart Family Hub. Let’s say I did buy that fridge for $5,000. How would I feel when its software stopped syncing with Google (or Instacart) in a few years time? Or the app to view the contents for my fridge isn’t updated for the latest version of iOS (or is discontinued entirely). Will I really feel good about spending an extra $3,000 on that fridge?
More to the point — will I even be willing to buy a smart appliance like that again?