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You Don’t Own Your Platform-Supported Gadgets

Fitbit Versa 2

I have some bad news for you: you don’t actually own your gadgets. That is, not if they rely on any external connected service. This was always the case, but the last few months have served to underline a basic tenet of how modern technology works. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Under Armour UA Band
Under Armour

Tony Stark’s favorite underwear is apparently in something of a crisis for the entire company, but that’s doubly so for its connected “wearable fitness” tech. After acquiring massively popular fitness apps like MyFitnessPal, Endomondo, and MapMyFitness, the company tried to expand into the competitive arena of wearables and data trackers specifically for the sporty crowd. It was a massive failure, and Under Armour’s fitness hardware is going to be effectively bricked later this month.

Another example comes from Spectrum, a U.S, internet service provider. Like most of its competitors, it’s trying to break into the smart home market. Or, at least it was: in January, the company announced that it was abandoning its home security service, leaving customers who paid for its pricey web-connected cameras in the dark. The cameras, sold by Spectrum and branded as its own equipment, are purposefully incompatible with other smarthome systems.

More recently, Philips announced that the original Hue Bridge, necessary for the operation of the original smart Hue lightbulbs, won’t be getting any new updates as of April 30th. More alarming, the last update will totally close the Bridge’s access to the web, which means that it won’t be accessible to smart home platforms like Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. It’s losing a huge part of its functionality—some users would say most of it. It will still technically work on local networks via a legacy app, and newer versions of the Bridge will continue to operate. At least for now.

Philips Hue Bridge
One of these smarthome gadgets is supported. The other is not. Buy the right one! Philips

All of these shutdowns are from companies that were, or are, at least somewhat reliable. This list doesn’t even include companies that have gone under and, naturally, left their products unsupported.

For example, customers are looking at Fitbit with trepidation because the company was acquired by Google, ostensibly to shore up its own struggling wearable strategy. That might give former fans of Pebble a bit of schadenfreude: Fitbit bought that early smartwatch maker and shut down its connected services in 2017.

There’s Bad News, Then There’s Worse News

The bad news is that this sort of thing is only going to continue as we become more reliant on technology services over technology devices.

Free services and support have become so transient that we essentially expect some connected devices to stop working at some point: Android phones are supposed to get at least two years of software updates, but many cheaper models don’t even reach that far. Smart-home devices, from dozens or hundreds of different manufacturers leaning on integration with existing platforms, may be even more susceptible to long-term support problems.

The worse news is, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. As an end user, your ability to drive the decisions of the companies you rely on is basically nil, beyond continuing to pay them. If you’re relying on a service that you don’t continually pay for, there’s at least some chance that it’s going to disappear. Still yet, there’s a chance it could disappear even if you do pay for it.

Let’s take the relatively recent influx of connect fitness tech, for example. Tons of new connected home gym devices seek to ape Peloton’s success, complete with subscriptions for gym classes and software updates. What happens when that market inevitably contracts, leaving many of these startup products bereft of content or support? The best you could hope for is an exercise machine that still works without any of the bells and whistles. The worst case scenario would be a $1,500 smart mirror that’s now just, well, a mirror.

The screen of a Peloton indoor bike.
Peloton’s connected bikes could be some very expensive bricks if the company goes under. Peloton

And, there are worse scenarios. New cars and home appliances are now so connected that they need security updates. If Ford or Tesla decided it was no longer cost effective to keep their car software up to date, customers could be out tens of thousands of dollars, to say nothing of the potential safety issues.

So, What Can You Do?

So, you can’t stop a company from writing off a product line or simply going out of business. What can you do? Your options are limited, but the best thing to do is simply be aware that losing access to your connected devices is always a possibility. Be mindful of this, and be ready to switch to an alternative if you have to.

Make sure you’re keeping this in mind as you buy new devices. Spending a thousand bucks on a new iPhone is a pretty safe investment in terms of both hardware and software support—Apple isn’t going anywhere in the next few years. That’s a fact that will probably annoy those who spent a bundle on a neat new Essential phone, only to see the company shut down after one phone and one concept.

Does that limit your choices to safe companies, perhaps unwilling to innovate? It does. But it’s a matter of how much you’re willing to invest in a company and platform, in terms of your money, your data, and your time.

Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider has been writing about computers, phones, video games, and general nerdy things on the internet for ten years. He’s never happier than when he’s tinkering with his home-built desktop or soldering a new keyboard. Read Full Bio »