End of life?
Manufacturers and developers should think about strategies to keep smart products functional when they can't provide support anymore.
This is a short version of a longer article originally posted by Olivier De Roo on LinkedIn.
The bankruptcy of Vanmoof has raised questions about the future of smart products. As these devices become increasingly interconnected and reliant on software, we need to consider what happens to them when the companies that create them go out of business or just decide to discontinue support. Will our smart products become obsolete overnight? Or will there be ways to keep them functional even after their creators have abandoned them?
These are just some of the questions that need to be answered as the smart product market continues to grow. It is important that we start thinking about these issues now, before it is too late.
As smart products become increasingly interconnected and reliant on software, there are a number of challenges that need to be considered. These include:
- System shutdowns
What happens when the company that created your smart product goes out of business or decides to discontinue support? Your product may become obsolete overnight, even if it is still in good working condition.
- Operating system compatibility
As smartphones and other devices are updated, their operating systems may become incompatible with older smart products. This can make it difficult or impossible to use your product, even if it is still technically functional.
- Security vulnerabilities
Smart products are often connected to the internet, which makes them vulnerable to security attacks. If a vulnerability is not patched, it could allow hackers to access your personal data or even control your devices.
These are just a few of the challenges that need to be addressed as the smart product market continues to grow. It is important that consumers are aware of these risks and that manufacturers take steps to mitigate them.
Consumers have different expectations for essential and additional smart features in products. Essential features are expected to function optimally and consistently over the product's lifetime, while additional features may evolve, change, or even cease to function over time.
How these products are marketed and advertised by manufacturers plays a role in shaping consumer expectations. Consumers rely on what's communicated to them at the point of sale or in marketing material to understand what to expect from a smart product.
There is no one size fits all solution, but some options I see are:
- Localizing smart functionality
This means running the smart functionality on the device itself or on a local hub, so that it is not reliant on an external platform. This is becoming increasingly feasible as microprocessors become more powerful and cheap.
- Provide open and local APIs
Allows customers to access essential smart features (locally) without a proprietary front-end that needs maintenance. Open-source projects such as Home Assistant show many possibilities exist to do this well.
- Adopt an escrow system
This would allow users to gain access to the source code of a product if the company that created it goes out of business. Allowing them to continue using the product even without the company's support.
- Build in the open
Make the source code of a product available to the public. Community developers can update the software and keep it functional even after the company that created it goes out of business.
- Offer thoughtful digital front-ends
Carefully considering which features really need their own digital front-end and which ones can be accessed through open APIs or existing platforms such as Apple Homekit or Google Home. Helping to ensure that essential features are always available.
- Subscription models
An other way to tackle this could be to step away from selling the physical product as such. Offering subscription models in which the emphasis is on the digital service is not feasible for all types of goods, but for some it can be a logical move.
We need regulations and guidelines to ensure that smart products are designed and manufactured in a way that ensures their longevity. This includes transparency about essential and additional functionality, software security standards, recurring costs, and the availability of spare parts and repair information.
The European Ecodesign regulation is one example of a regulation that could be used to address these challenges. The regulation sets requirements for the energy efficiency and environmental impact of products, but it could be expanded to include requirements for the longevity of digital aspects of products.
There are also a number of initiatives underway to address these challenges, such as the Digital Fair Repair Act in New York state and the "Digital Right to Repair" coalition in the U.S. These initiatives could pave the way for regulations that address the challenges of ensuring the longevity of smart products.
Regulation can be a slow process, and in the interim, it's up to the industry and consumers to adopt conscientious choices and strategies. Because at the end of the day, ten years from now, these products will still exist in our hands and homes.