This is, unfortunately, becoming one of the most predictable stories of the early 21st century. It goes something like this: new tech product comes on the market. Consumers, finding product solves their problem, eagerly buy. Then the company that made the product turns off the server that made the thing “smart,” and suddenly early adopters are up a creek with no recourse.
This time around, the story is about lightbulbs.
Earlier this month, our colleague and Consumerist reader Michelle spotted a great deal on some Connected by TCP smart lightbulbs she’d been eyeing for her home. Before buying, she checked to see if they’d be compatible with her Amazon Echo or Wink app, and it’s good that she checked first. As it turns out, those bulbs are no longer compatible with any device, app, or hub, because TCP pulled the plug on their server as of June 1.
The outcry, all things considered, was pretty small. There are angry and upset reviews on listings where the product is sold (like Amazon and Home Depot), but nothing like the furor that results when some other products lose their support. That, in and of itself, is probably a good indicator of why TCP went and killed off their server: the product may not have been popular enough to justify the cost.
The bulbs still work as actual lightbulbs, if you want to use your lamp’s on-off switch the old-fashioned way, and you can control them while inside the house on your home WiFi network. But any remote functionality — a big part of the steep price tag that makes TCP bulbs more expensive than a plain old LED bulb — is long gone.
The fact that the bulbs are still on store shelves, with packaging promising features that no longer exist, is irksome. But it’s also not an uncommon tale in these early years of the Internet of Things. Businesses try, and then discontinue, new products all the time.
The difference is, if the company that makes your sofa goes out of business, you can still sit on your butt and watch TV. Even if the company that makes your car goes out of business, your local mechanic can still keep it running safely for many years after the fact. But when an internet-connected device loses its internet connection, well, there goes everything that made it what it was.
In coming years, consumers — especially early adopters — are going to end up spending a lot of money on things that end up being expensive paperweights, in the end. When every device uses some kind of proprietary call to some kind of proprietary server, the end of a cloud connection is going to mean the end of function.
So is there hope for consumers who don’t want to feel swindled every time they upgrade?
The path to solutions, it seems, will be twofold: it’ll take work from both the tech development end and also from the consumer protection end to make any changes.
On the one side, the FTC is trying hard to get businesses in the IoT space to behave themselves and watch out for their customers’ interests, even though there’s not exactly any rule on the books right now that pertains to maintaining servers. “Consumers generally expect that the things they buy will work and keep working,” the FTC wrote in July, “and that includes any technical or other support necessary for essential functioning.”
On the other side, some folks in the tech space are arguing that absent an open, consistent standard, basically all cloud-based “smart” devices are doomed. The solution? Make them in such a way that they can be made to keep working if your server, for whatever reason, goes away.
These kinds of changes will be a long time coming, of course, and they’re too late to help anyone who dropped cash on a Connected by TCP bulb. But maybe the tech consumers of the next decade will be in better luck.