Forever Connected

... Until It's Not.

Rob Bell

Issue 7, January 2018

No, I’m not talking about being unable to put your phone down, or work/life balance. I’m talking about connected products.

Smart speakers have well and truly hit the mainstream. With Google now advertising their smart speakers on everything from TV to cinema, it’s safe to say that this holiday season, millions more will find their way into homes around the world, connecting all of us with these virtual assistants. What we often don’t realise is that all of these services rely on a third party - effectively, forever - to provide functionality. This is okay, while the “host” company is in business, but we’ve already seen what happens when that changes.


The proverbial “linchpin” with IoT connectivity is the tendency to require a “host” (generally, a service somewhere in the cloud). Sure, you might access it on your smartphone via a sleek-looking app, but the data is still usually going through the cloud (unless it’s Bluetooth or similar, in which case it’s not technically IoT). Prior to the cloud, connecting one internet connection to another was a tricky, dynamic process. There were certainly ways to do it, and still are, but “the cloud” is a known point on the internet. Rather than trying to connect two moving targets (i.e., your home broadband connection with a dynamic IP address, with your smartphone which is even more dynamic), there’s a known point that all data goes through (even if it's made up of multiple servers, paths, redundancy etc, it's pretty much treated as one point). This makes life easier, for sure. But someone needs to be responsible for that known point.

As is the case with any subscription product, or product that ties into any external service, the full functionality can only be enjoyed while the company behind it exists and continues to service the product. While the cloud infrastructure may be virtually bulletproof - so long as the company is paying its hosting bills - it doesn’t take long for that ultra-high-availability to vapourise if the bills stop being paid; after all, electricity and server space doesn’t come free. The result? You end up with “zombie” products that are entirely useless without their cloud-based host.


As many car manufacturers recently found out in Australia, things don’t always last forever, even if a company doesn’t go bust entirely. As happens in business, the music streaming service Pandora decided to shut the gate on Australian and New Zealand based subscribers, whether paid or using the free service. Several years ago, Pandora had worked hard to forge relationships with car manufacturers. After all, having virtually unlimited access to music in your car sounds like a great idea! Who could have predicted that they would withdraw support in the Australian/New Zealand markets - especially considering the company is still running? There are now vehicles with fantastic integrations that are unusable, almost overnight. Fortunately some didn’t integrate it quite so explicitly, and a quick software patch at the next service will make it little more than a painful memory.

Consider your most recent TV purchase. If it is a Smart TV, there’s a good chance that it features a “YouTube” or “Netflix” button, permanently integrated as part of the remote control. Now, no longer do you have to search through the clumsy Smart TV menu, you have a button right there on the remote to access your favourite viewing platform! Of course, right now we can’t think of a world without YouTube or Netflix, but it’s entirely feasible (in fact, probable) that they won’t be around forever. As crazy as this sounds right now, the broader internet once thought that MySpace would dominate social networking forever. History proves that’s not how the story goes. While it’s unlikely to happen in the short lifecycle of a TV, it’s entirely probably that at some point in the future, those buttons will become redundant.


I know what you’re thinking... what has Bitcoin got to do with this? In some ways, nothing. In other ways, everything. One of the interesting things about the blockchain and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin is that they’re fully decentralised. By their very design, they remove the primary funnel that everything goes through. For currencies it’s the reserve banks. For IoT, this is the cloud. However just because you decentralise something, doesn’t mean it can’t land in the same digital wasteland as the powered-down cloud of a failed company. What many people don’t realise however, is that an unsupported blockchain is just as bad as having the “central provider” fail.

This is effectively why some cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin achieve staggering value, while others fall out of existence, having never achieved the same status (or anything close to it). While you don’t rely on the central point (whether it’s a company, a server, or whatever), you still have to have the distributed network doing the work. In the case of Bitcoin, it’s the miners who are rewarded with currency. If the currency has no value, there’s little incentive to use the computing power (and the electrical power) involved. Ultimately to be kept alive, there still has to be some incentive and a reason for a distributed network.


There is only so much homework you can do with a company, and let’s face it, features are more fun than “possible failures” in the future. We’re more concerned that our iPhone takes great photos than if Siri is going to be around in a decade. But what if you fit out your house with the latest IoT devices to control lighting, air conditioning, the pool filter, and more? While home automation doesn’t have to go through the cloud, the latest technology is usually geared that way. It is possible that you end up with a house full of devices which no longer work.


Now here’s where things get tricky... there’s no easy solution to this dilemma. Perhaps just as service level agreements became part of the internet, service duration agreements could form part of what’s expected with connected-products. So not only a warranty on the hardware, but on the connectivity and functionality too.

We don’t really want to go about creating our own private cloud, only using products that have a public API, or anything like that. It’s costly, and we really just move the failure point to somewhere else. But if IoT devices become ubiquitous in our lives, that spontaneous cessation of functionality could cause some major grievances.

Perhaps in future, manufacturers of connected products will need to disclaim upon purchase, or provide some type of insurance, that the functionality pf the product will remain in the event that their company ceases existence. What other way could they protect consumer rights, ensuring the device works if the company goes broke? We all know laws are slow to adapt to evolving technology, but it could happen (laws regarding drones came into effect rather rapidly since someone decided it was important, after all).

We may never get that far, but several companies including Cisco, are currently working to develop some standards around IoT devices. If we can standardise how they communicate and operate, even if the original company that developed a product becomes a distant memory, we could see the products retain functionality on other platforms. It would also help address some potential IoT pitfalls such as security holes... but that’s a whole other conversation.

I suspect that blockchain will indeed have a role to play in the future of standardised IoT too. It’s secure, distributed, and highly reliable. The question is, what’s the incentive? For the people that solve this challenge, there’s a very bright future.