Like most tech journalists, I have a graveyard of obsolete IoT devices. There are fitness trackers, earbuds, a drone, homemade connected clothing, smart home light switches, aftermarket devices, and pet toys to name a few. Overall, at least 95 percent of these products fell victim to planned obsolescence, or the company went bankrupt or withdrew from service. The rest suffer from the lack of “right to repair” options.
While the choice is no longevityr Using a smart device can be the owner’s choice. There is another problem with IoT – device obsolescence. A company goes bankrupt or is acquired. Older devices are no longer supported or the software of the device is no longer updated. A safety problem is forcing the device to be taken out of service. Or technology standards develop faster than the IoT device.
When it comes to IoT, useless devices are a significant problem. The ubiquity of connected devices means that many of us own products that are embedded in IoT, whether we choose to do so or not. This includes many big box products such as washing machines, refrigerators, and kitchen appliances, which traditionally have an average lifespan of over a decade.
However, their functionality will no longer exist if the software is no longer updated. We have seen this be the case with thermostats, smart bulbs, smart home hubs, speakers, and smart home security. This leaves many unhappy consumers who have contributed to the significant electronic waste (e-waste) problem with devices that they can no longer use and that contain components that they cannot easily recycle. Your only option is to invest in newer equipment and so the cycle continues.
So far, the litmus test for obsolescence has been iPhones. Earlier this month, Marketeer reported that Apple is facing a new lawsuit from Portuguese data protection officer Deco Protests. The lawsuit alleges Apple programmed the iPhones 6, Plus, 6S, and 6S Plus to be obsolete, forcing consumers to invest in new devices sooner than expected.
France became the first country in the world to ban unfair planned obsolescence in 2015. It is punished with two years imprisonment, a fine of 300,000 euros and up to 5 percent of the average annual turnover of a company. Last year, following an investigation by the Directorate-General for Competition, the Apple group agreed to pay a fine of EUR 25 million following an investigation that began in 2018. According to a press release from the DGCCRF:
“The DGCCRF has shown that iPhone owners have not been informed that the updates to the iOS operating system (10.2.1 and 11.2) they installed would likely slow down the operation of their device. These updates released in 2017 included a dynamic energy management device that, under certain conditions, and especially with old batteries, can slow down the operation of the iPhone 6, SE and 7 models. “
A complaint from Altroconsumo (an Italian consumer protection agency) prompted the Rome Administrative Court to order Apple to pay a fine of 10 million euros.
Companies promise software updates and security patches to keep our smart home devices operational and secure. However, what happens if the product is closed before its lifespan?
In 2019, Internet provider Spectrum shut down its home security service, leaving customers who bought locked ZigBee-based custom firmware hardware out of luck. The devices are not only bricked, but worse. According to reports, Spectrum has firmware encoded its devices to make them incompatible with other devices. If you have an original Samsung SmartThings hub from 2013 or a SmartThings Link for NVIDIA® SHIELD ™, your hardware will stop working on June 30th of this year.
What can we as consumers expect when it comes to device obsolescence? On the one hand, we are promised software as a service with wireless updates for our connected devices by building a relationship between consumers and retailers over a period of more than a decade. Consumers should reasonably expect their security service to last longer than six years and their hub longer than seven years. Or should they?
Smartwatch pioneer Pebble closed its doors in December 2016 when Fitbit acquired some of its assets, including key personnel, for a disclosed amount between $ 23 million and $ 40 million. The company was a pioneer in connected watches, selling over two million devices since it was launched in 2012. The company raised over $ 10 million in funding for Kickstarter.
Fitbit ended its support for Pebble watches in 2018. This meant Pebble owners no longer had access to software updates, replacement chargers, or warranty service.
However, Pebble has a vibrant developer community. They have published over 15,000 watch faces and clock apps, as well as 130 companion apps, libraries, and packages. Developers have done over 4.6 million builds on CloudPebble. After Fitbit, Pebble turned into an unofficial spearheading organization to promote the Pebble platform through the Pebble developer community. The community funds grants, runs competitions, and “maintains and improves Pebble functionality in the absence of Pebble Technology Corp.”
We live in a time when technology is advancing exponentially. How long can we expect our devices to last a long time before they become obsolete? Mainstream consumer IoT has been around for less than a decade. During this time we have seen an explosion of innovation in related technologies. This includes 5G, Bluetooth, software, machine learning, data science, materials and batteries. Shouldn’t we expect our products to evolve as technology advances? What is the balance?
In February the European Commission published its circular economy action plan. There are plans to revise consumer law to ensure that consumers know the lifespan and repairability of the product at the time of purchase. It also strengthens consumer protection against planned obsolescence and the right to repair. Planned regulations ensure that device design includes energy efficiency, repairability, upgradeability, maintenance, reuse and recycling. The rules currently apply to washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators and displays (including televisions) across Europe.
Under the new laws, manufacturers are only required to provide most replacement parts and repair manuals to professional repairers. This is maintained for seven to ten years after the product is withdrawn from the market. Manufacturers must provide professional repair shops with the latest firmware, software and security updates and access to spare parts.
According to Repair EU, however, there is no special requirement for manufacturers to keep updating the software throughout the life of a product. This means that a manufacturer can comply with the regulations without having to commit to supporting products with software or security updates for the life of their products.
Companies like Apple void warranties when consumers repair products from stores outside their approved circle. Worse still, those who do not have the right to repair their own tractor or attached car can be charged with illegal tampering.
A single combine contains over 125 software connected sensors in a single combine. Each sensor is connected to a controller network. A problem with one of these controller networks requires diagnostic tools that are not available to farmers and sends them back to the dealer for repair.
According to experts in agricultural equipment, these sensors and the associated control networks are the greatest sources of error in the product today. Missouri farmer Jared Wilson lost thousands of dollars in income in one season and waited 32 days for his dealer to fix a mechanical valve on his manure spreader. He believes that with the necessary parts and diagnostic tools, he would have done the job himself.
In September 2018, the Equipment Dealers Association signed an agreement with John Deere. They agreed to make repair tools, software guides and diagnostic equipment available to farmers from January 1, 2021. Farmers have long criticized the software locks used in John Deere tractors. They worked hard and bills were introduced in over 32 states.
However, research by the US Public Interest Research Group shows that farmers are still waiting for access. A US PIRG member posing as a customer called 12 John Deere dealerships in six states. Eleven stated that they did not sell any diagnostic software. The other directed him to an email address he’d never heard back from. So it is fair to say that progress is slow.
We need modular, interchangeable parts in devices. Use reused and recycled materials. But modular