A brain hovering in front of a smart fridge
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When you buy a new appliance, you’re making an investment that should last a while, but that may not be true for smart appliances. Manufacturers aren’t obligated to keep your machine up to date, which could turn your investment sour.

Appliances Should Last For Decades

Today, there are still plenty of homes furnished with fridges, stoves, and washing machines from the ’80s. These appliances may not look as good as they used to, and they probably inflate electric bills, but they’re reliable and easily serviceable. Some of these appliances may survive for another ten or twenty years. So it’s fair to assume that a brand new appliance will last for decades, right?

Well, it depends on what you buy. Let’s say that you’ve invested in a smart appliance, like the Samsung Family Hub smart fridge or an LG smart A/C unit. You could’ve bought a cheaper appliance, maybe even a refurbished appliance from the 2000s. But you (justifiably) consider the functions of a smart appliance to be a major selling-point and worthwhile investment.

Well, there’s a chance that your expensive smart appliance will be dumb in less than a decade.

You Replace Your Phones and Tablets Pretty Often

Remember landlines? They tended to last for a while, and you didn’t need to replace them unless you wanted a voicemail receiver or a cordless phone. But cell phones are a different story. According to a Gallup poll, 44% of Americans replace their cellphone every two years, and most cellphones become obsolete after about five or six years.

People don’t complain too much about having to buy a new phone every few years, mostly because they don’t have much choice. Smartphones regularly require new hardware and software to keep up with the times, and old computers tend to slow down. Not to mention, people are becoming increasingly concerned about privacy, and older phones can be more vulnerable to hacking attempts.

When you consider the fact that smart appliances are built like smartphones and tablets, and that they’re meant to work in tandem with smartphones and tablets, it raises a question. Will smart appliances need to be replaced every five or six years? Obviously, your smart fridge isn’t going to stop producing cold air just because its smart features are out of date. But if you dropped thousands of dollars on a smart fridge that can’t stay smart, then that’s a serious problem.

Firmware Updates Are Already Spotty

3D illustration of CPU against circuit board background
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The first wave of smart appliances came to market less than a decade ago, yet companies are already showing that they’re not interested in putting out firmware updates. And a lot of these appliances are hitting the market with rushed, underdeveloped software, so people are already finding themselves with smart appliances that aren’t so smart.

LG sold their brand of smart appliances (ranges, A/C units, washing machines, and so on) with the promise that they’d work with Google Home, but early adopters in the US claimed that their devices couldn’t connect to Google Home. They also complained that LG wouldn’t offer any support for the problem.

People that bought the first generation Samsung Family Hub smart fridge have had to constantly beg Samsung for firmware updates. While newer fridges came packaged with an updated UI and a Bixby virtual assistant, the old fridges were stuck with an old firmware version for months. Family Hub users complained that they couldn’t use the Google Calendar app in 2014, and Samsung decided that they wouldn’t fix the issue until 2017.

You could chalk this up to the fact that companies are rushing to solidify their spot in the smart appliance market. But people are already begging companies to put out firmware updates for their relatively new appliances. Would these companies put out updates if people didn’t complain? Are they obligated to put out updates?

Aren’t Updates Guaranteed Under a Warranty?

When you spend thousands of dollars on a smart appliance, you should rightfully expect the manufacturer to put out firmware updates. If anything, firmware updates should be guaranteed in the warranty. After all, if your smart appliance stops working properly because it needs a firmware or hardware update, isn’t that the manufacturer’s fault?

Let’s take a quick look at the Samsung Family Hub smart fridge. It costs $4000, has a giant screen, and is by far the most well-known luxury smart appliance on the market. Samsung makes it very clear that their smart fridge receives firmware updates. The fridges notify you when updates are available, there are update information pages and news announcements on the Samsung website. Plus, the Family Hub owner’s manual details how to update the fridge. But none of these sources guarantee that updates will come out in the future.

It makes sense that there are no product guarantees on those pages. But what about the warranty? Samsung’s warranty for the Family Hub smart fridge makes no mention of firmware updates or eventual service upgrades to the fridge’s smart hardware. Their warranty really only covers the “fridge” part of your smart fridge.

I also chatted with a “Samsung Care Pro” to try and find any paperwork that guarantees firmware updates from Samsung. At the beginning of the conversation, the representative told me that “yes, the refrigerator will be getting the updates.” I pressed a bit more, and after a 10-minute wait, he told me that “there is no paper work about the updates.”

When you consider manufacturers’ unwillingness to provide or guarantee firmware updates, it becomes clear that they don’t plan on providing updates forever, and that there’s nothing you can do if your smart appliance stops being smart. It’s safe to assume that manufacturers will always focus more on their newest products, so as new smart appliances hit the market, older smart appliances will lag behind.

Smart Appliances That Don’t Receive Updates Are Easier To Hack

It’s no secret that smart home devices are easy to hack. Some manufacturers put out updates that are meant to patch vulnerabilities, but we know that most manufacturers are bad at putting out firmware updates. And since warranties don’t guarantee firmware updates, it isn’t unreasonable to think that your costly smart appliances might not receive any patches or security enhancements ten years from now.

So as your easy-to-hack smart appliance becomes older and older, it’s going to become even more vulnerable. Since a lot of these devices are equipped with cameras, microphones, and data-collecting algorithms, hacking vulnerabilities are a major privacy concern.

But using appliances with outdated firmware isn’t some enclosed privacy concern; these old smart appliances could compromise your entire home network. In an effort to make the Internet more secure, the Wi-Fi alliance has unveiled WPA3, the newest Wi-Fi security standard. The world is slowly going to transition to WPA3, and a lot of routers are going to be running WPA3 alongside WPA2, the older security standard, so that older devices can still connect to the internet.

You’ll eventually end up with a router that, by default, only supports WPA3 security standards. And that’s a good thing, because WPA2 connections are becoming less and less safe. But if you have a smart appliance that’s running old firmware, then it may not be able to connect to a WPA3 signal. If you want to use that old appliance, you’ll have to adjust your router settings to support WPA2, a choice that will make you an easy target for hackers.

Think About Smart TV’s

Smart appliances are relatively new, and you won’t find them in most households. In fact, 64% of consumers aren’t even aware that smart fridges even exist. On the other hand, 37.2% of all US households had at least one smart TV by the end of 2018. Smart TV’s are so ubiquitous that a simple search for “TV” on Amazon leads you to dozens of pages of smart TV’s.

Since smart TV’s are so much more common than smart kitchen appliances, they serve as a good reference point for how long smart appliances will last, and what problems they could face. You may not think of a TV as an appliance, but the way that a smart TV works is similar to the way that a smart appliance works. The “smart” aspect doesn’t change the integral function of the device, but it’s a major selling-point that requires Wi-Fi connectivity and firmware updates to stay up to date.

Smart TV’s have notoriously clunky interfaces, and they rarely receive useful updates. In fact, it seems like manufactures are more interested in updates that force people to view ads than anything that boosts performance or security. And like smart appliances, smart TV’s are vulnerable to hacking, yet manufacturers tend to skirt around the issue and don’t make any real attempts to fix vulnerabilities.

Smart TV’s become obsolete so quickly that it’s not uncommon for people to have a Roku, Chomecast, or Amazon Firestick plugged into their smart TV, an ironic twist of fate that makes you wonder why people sell Smart TV’s in the first place (hint: they’re more profitable because of the crapware). And if this fast-paced obsolescence is happening to TV’s, then there’s a chance that it could also happen to smart appliances.

Why Would Any Company Sell an Appliance That Wont Last a Decade?

Companies that sell smart appliances are well aware that their products won’t stand the test of time. Manufactures like Samsung and LG have been selling smart phones for years, and they’ve been selling appliances for even longer. They know that they’re slapping together a product that’s relatively disposable with a product that’s meant to work for decades. Why would they put out home appliances that will become obsolete?

Well, for one, luxury smart appliances occupy a relatively untapped market. If a company beats their competitors to that market, then their apps and software might become an integral part of peoples’ lives. Getting smart appliances into peoples’ homes is the hard part, and buyers will have no choice but to turn to their appliances’ manufacturers for help later. “Move fast and break things,” a mogul once said.

But what if businesses decide that they don’t want to service smart appliances? It’s only been a few years since these products hit the market, and manufacturers already seem unwilling to put out comprehensive firmware updates. People may start to replace their fridges and dishwasher the same way that they replace their cellphones, which would be very lucrative for businesses. Maybe people will feel ripped-off and start abandoning bad brands. We’ll have to wait and find out.

What We Want From Manufacturers

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Even if a company like Samsung starts rolling out firmware updates for smart appliances, or sending out employees to replace old hardware, it’s going to be difficult to keep your smart appliances working the way they should. As it is now, the “smart” aspect of your smart appliances are as vulnerable to time as your smartphone. So how can manufacturers approach this problem?

Remember smart TV’s? They’re clunky, vulnerable, and their “smart” features become obsolete quickly. But you can easily remedy the problem by plugging in a cheap device like a Chromecast or Roku. And since plug-in streaming devices are cheap and easy to replace, consumers don’t feel the need to replace their TV as often as they replace their cellphones.

Like a smart TV, a smart fridge or washing machine’s biggest problems lie in its “smart” hardware and software. They’re hard to service, and can quickly become obsolete. Screens, cameras, thermometers, microphones, and speakers aren’t the issue.

So here’s my proposal.

Manufacturers should add a port to their expensive smart appliances that lets you plug in a cheap device (similar to a Chromecast) every couple of years to keep the appliance up to date. These small devices will also handle the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so you don’t have to worry about your old appliance falling behind security standards.

This system will make consumers more confident in their investment, it’ll provide manufacturers with a stable stream of income from their smart appliances (without ripping people off), and it will encourage tech-savvy nerds to handle most of the software development for smart appliance platforms. Boom, everybody’s happy. But if any companies decide to implement this idea, they better pay me for it.

When They Work, Smart Appliances Are Great

This isn’t a tirade against smart appliances. They have the potential to make our lives easier, and they’ve managed to capture a lot of peoples’ imaginations. You can use them to remotely navigate recipes, watch videos while you cook, or see the contents of your fridge on your phone. But manufacturers need to build smart appliances that can stand the test of time. Hopefully, your future home won’t be full of hackable, outdated, frustrating machines. But there’s a chance that it will be.

Sources: Google Help Forum, Reviewed, Samsung, Digital Trends, Extremetech
Profile Photo for Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
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