Your smarthome devices might be running smoothly now, but at any time, a forced update or a change by the manufacturer could potentially break your device, either temporarily or permanently. And there’s nothing you can do about it.
Most mainstream smarthome devices on the market rely on cloud connectivity, which means they need to be connected to the Internet and maintain contact with the manufacturer’s servers to receive updates and support. This is both a blessing and a curse, but mostly a curse.
It Starts with the Occasional Server Hiccups
You go to adjust your smart thermostat from your phone and get shown a nice little “server is down” message in place of all the controls that you’d normally see. This gives you a little taste into what I’m talking about.
You tell yourself that you’re connected to the same Wi-Fi network as your smart thermostat, so you should be able to communicate locally with the thermostat from your phone. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works, and it’s a great example of why cloud-based smarthome products can be frustrating.
Even if you could communicate locally with your device and the hardware and software is there for it, you still have to have an outside connection to the manufacturer’s servers. And if that connection is broken for whatever reason, then wave goodbye to remote access.
Updates & Patches Could Brick Your Devices
While some devices let you download updates on your own time, other devices do it automatically whether you’re okay with it or not. And it’s not uncommon for a forced update to cause unexpected issues, either for a select few or for every user of the service.
This happened recently with Logitech’s Harmony Hub, where Logitech automatically updated the firmware of the hubs to fix security vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, this broke API access, which meant all sorts of integrations that people had set up with the Hub no longer worked.
Logitech had the sense to come up with a way for users to re-enable API access on the local end, but it all ended up being a huge headache for Harmony Hub users.
This can happen to any cloud-based smarthome device that you own. And what makes it worse is when it happens on a device that you heavily rely on, like a video doorbell or smart lights.
Companies Can Shut Down and Render Their Products Useless
When you buy and set up a smarthome product that relies on the cloud and needs to be connected to the manufacturer’s servers, you’re basically at the mercy of that company.
In other words, a company can decide that keeping one of their products alive isn’t viable for their business strategy. They decide to discontinue and no longer support the product, screwing the customer by leaving them with a paperweight instead of a product for which they paid good money.
It’s happened with Lighthouse and their security cameras, as well as the Nest-owned Revolv hub. Most recently, Lowe’s officially shut down its Iris smarthome platform for good, most likely due to fading interest and low sales. This meant that users with an Iris system at home were pretty much screwed and left with hubs that no longer worked (although the devices and sensors can still work with other hubs). Luckily, Lowe’s is offering refunds for Iris customers, but not all companies that shut down products are as gracious.
So What Am I Supposed to Do?
While there’s nothing you can do to prevent any of this from happening, there are things you can do to at least mitigate the chances of it happening.
For starters, stick with manufacturers and brands that have been around a while, are at least somewhat popular, and have a solid reputation. This isn’t 100% foolproof, of course, but most companies that shut down a smarthome device or service are doing so because it’s not popular with the public, thus not generating enough revenue to keep it viable.
Smarthome brands like Nest, Ring, Ecobee, Philips Hue, Arlo, and WeMo are all really popular brands with a huge userbase. These brands have a reputation to uphold, and to have any of them shut down in the near future would be highly unlikely.
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Of course, there’s a saying that every dynasty will eventually fall, so it’s possible for any one of the above brands to shutter somewhere down the road. It’s up to you whether or not to take that risk.
Secondly, what most die-hard smarthome enthusiasts recommend doing is to simply not buy or use any smarthome product that relies on the cloud. The downside is that most of those kinds of products aren’t as easy to set up, and pretty much anyone who’s a novice in this category likely won’t bother.
However, several companies (like HomeSeer and Hubitat) are trying their best to make it easier for end users to set up a locally-based smart home. Unfortunately, it’s still more tempting to buy and set up products like a Nest Thermostat, a Ring Doorbell, some Hue lights, and a Wi-Fi cam.