What happens to a smart appliance when its manufacturer dies?

Juicero smart-juicer device. Source: Juicero

Early this month, the widely ridiculed juice-squeezing company Juicer, which managed to raise the absurd amount of $120 million in funding from Silicon Valley investors, declared its shutdown. The startup’s demise, which is another manifestation of solutions to non-problems, also points out another endemic problem with our increasingly connected world: the fate of connected devices after the end of their companies.

20 years ago, when you bought a fridge or dishwasher or washing machine for your home, it wouldn’t make much of a difference to you if the company that created the appliance would go bankrupt or remained in business. You would install it in a corner in your home and let it work for years, until it was time to replace it.

Soon enough, that may no longer be the case, thanks to the increasing number of “smart” appliances that are entering consumers’ homes.

Most of these devices rely on internet-connected mobile apps to function. Those applications rely on cloud servers that at the minimum cost the manufacturer thousands of dollars a year to stay online. In case of applications with millions of users, the costs can go north of hundreds of millions of dollars.

When the company goes bankrupt and shuts down, no one will pay for the servers, and as a result those applications will stop working. By consequence, the appliances will be rendered useless.

There could also be security implications if devices remain connected to the internet or the company continues to run the application for the sake of keeping the appliances functioning. A company that goes out of business will likely no longer pay for the security and maintenance of its residual components. As a result, its servers and its customers’ private data will be exposed to attacks. Furthermore, new vulnerabilities can be found in the device’s firmware, which won’t be fixed and updated if the company that created it no longer exists. This will expose the consumers to new attacks.

In the case of Juicero, the company declared a 90-day window to refund the customers of its $400 juicer. This is a wise move for a company with a limited reach, but not very rational when you have millions of devices scattered across the globe. Also, not all customers appreciate it if they have to pack their 200 pound washing machine, send it back to the manufacturer and go shopping for a new one.

And Juicero is not an exceptional case. For the moment, the Internet of Things and smart home appliances is still in its early phases. There are a lot of developments, too many moving parts, too many ideas that will fail. Expect many more startups share the fate of Juicero, i.e. die and leave a trail of orphaned devices behind them.

What are the lessons to be drawn? First of all, manufacturers should protect their customers from a possible fallout of their business by ensuring their appliances work offline or when the application is no longer available. Alternatively, they can provide consumers with the option to deploy the application on a local server—not a neat solution, to be fair, but better than the device not working at all.

They must also make it clear that the users should disconnect their devices from the internet if the company is no longer updating the software and firmware, for their own sake and the sake of others.

ISPs and infrastructural service providers can help too by identifying obsolete devices that remain connected to the internet, and prevent them from being used in malicious ways.

As for consumers, for the moment, they should pause before buying the next cool connected appliance and bringing it to their home. They should ask themselves, will the devices work for the next twenty years, or will they die with their manufacturers?

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One comment on “What happens to a smart appliance when its manufacturer dies?

  1. hykerfred says:

    Maybe we should start to talk about “IoT rot”? Like SW developers talk about code rot when code is abandoned and not maintained anymore. The software does not actually decay, but rather suffers from a lack of being updated with respect to the changing environment.

    Liked by 1 person

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