Mood lighting isn’t really my thing, but a number of consumers have bought something called a Hue smart lighting system from the well-known lighting manufacturer Philips. For maximum enjoyment, you buy a Hue Bridge and connect it to the Internet so it both controls your lights and interacts with some online resources operated by Philips. For people who get a thrill out of dimming their living-room lights while they’re still at work, I suppose this is as good as it gets. But early adopters who bought the first version of this system up to five years ago are in for an unpleasant surprise, according to Matthew Gault, writing at www.vice.com.
Next month, Philips will cease supporting Version 1 of the Hue Bridge, which means it will then be vulnerable to security issues and the online services won’t work anymore. To retain the full functionality of your system, which can include up to 50 bulbs if you went whole hog with every light in your house, you have to buy a new $60 Bridge and start over registering all your light bulbs and changing accounts and I don’t know what all. My life is complicated enough without having to register light bulbs, so my sympathies are with the unfortunate owners of what are now legacy Hue systems that either have to upgrade or go back to kerosene lanterns (not really).
Gault points out that this is just one example of a larger trend: the increasing tendency of companies to treat hardware like software, which nobody really buys. If you hire a lawyer to render that fine-print boilerplate nobody ever reads before saying they’ve read it in order to use new software, he or she will tell you that you don’t own the software even if you pay thousands of bucks for it. All you get is a license to use it, and the term of the license can vary from indefinitely to a very short time indeed.
Apply this notion to hardware, and you get such situations as Gault describes with another smarthome company called Revolv. For a couple of years, Revolv was doing well selling smarthome systems, and then a subsidiary of Google bought Revolv and unilaterally shut down the service in May of 2016, leaving people with hundreds of dollars’ worth of useless hardware. Gault uses the word “brick” as a verb when describing this charming behavior, as in, “They bricked my phone” meaning to disable remotely—to turn a useful piece of electronics into something as useful as a brick.
Faced with such an eventuality, consumers don’t have much recourse. Suing over the price of a piece of consumer electronics is not cost-effective. Class-action lawsuits are possible, but that works only if there is a reasonable possibility of a large-enough payout if the defendant loses, so that the lawyers for the plaintiffs, who typically work on a contingency-fee basis, can recoup their expenses and make a profit. Unless someone is actually physically harmed or otherwise injured, such civil suits rarely succeed. Having your smart speaker or smart light bulb quit working does not pull on the heartstrings of juries, especially juries of people who can’t afford such niceties. So most consumers on the short end of sticks like this will just grumble and swear not to buy anything from that company again—unless it’s somebody like Google, whose services and products are getting to be almost as ubiquitous as water and air.
Where does this leave the companies morally? Suppose this was the Middle Ages, say, and we’re looking for a situation in human relationships comparable to what these companies are doing by bricking or ceasing to support their products. This may sound extreme, but the only thing I can think of that’s comparable is a raid: to be specific, a Viking raid on an English coastal town.
Say you’re a fisherman, minding your own business one day and mending your nets. You’ve managed to accumulate a small number of useful objects: cups, bowls, maybe some jewelry for your wife—imagine whatever would equate to an upper-middle-class living in, say, 900 A. D. All of a sudden, you see ships on the horizon, and you know they’re Vikings. And you know what’s going to happen next. You can kiss all your nice things good-bye, and maybe your wife and your life as well.
Now, Google or Philips doesn’t rape your wife and burn your house down. But when they brick or otherwise reduce the functionality of their products, they do take something that you thought was yours, and they don’t give anything in return. In their defense, the companies would say that they delivered a certain amount of service over the useful life of the product, but surely we didn’t expect the device to work forever, did we?
That’s a hard question to answer. As I get older, my perspective on technological progress has changed, possibly because I’ve seen so many technologies come and go: 8-track tapes, videotapes, cassette tapes, floppy disks, CRT displays. . . . For some reason, the image of a spoiled child picking up and then discarding one new toy after another comes to mind. Sometimes he tires of the toy and throws it down and demands another. Other times, the toy is taken away before he’s finished with it and he throws a tantrum. But he’s never truly happy or content either way.
Unless we all become lawyers and refuse to buy anything without executing a custom-written contract with every company we buy from, specifying the term of service we expect from their products, we will continue to be the spoiled children playing with toys whose usefulness is at the whim of the manufacturer. There are too many lawyers as it is, and I also agree with Gault when he says that governments don’t seem willing to be the playground supervisor who enforces fair play.
So a phrase that dates from even longer ago than the Middle Ages seems appropriate here: caveat emptor. The buyer should beware that any product involving software, which is increasingly almost any piece of electronics these days, may up and quit on you at any time—not because it breaks, or because you misused it, but because its maker found it uneconomical to keep it going. And you’ll just have to deal with it if it does.