Sweet talk and salutory reminders

We suffer so much sweet talk from industry that at times it is all too easy to get lulled along with it. Then, every so often, corporate behaviour is a salutory reminder that large corporations did not get where they are today by acting like charities.

A couple of weeks ago the case in point was Barnes & Noble and their NOOK eBook readers, which were summarily shutting down in the UK and being passed on to Sainsbury’s. If you have a NOOK in the UK and fail to transfer your library to Sainsbury’s in time, then the books which you thought you had paid for will just vanish, and became inaccessible.

Although not as recent as that, today’s head of steam is growing over Google and its arbitrary shutdown of Revolv products and services, which were acquired by Nest in October 2014, nine months after Nest itself had become part of the Google empire, now retitled Alphabet.

Revolv, like Nest, made IoT devices for the ‘smart’ home, including a smart home hub with supporting app and remote service. These don’t seem to have sold particularly well, but once in the clutches of Nest any ideas about getting Revolv products to work with Nest were quickly abandoned. Nest wanted the employees, and immediately ceased selling their products.

Now Revolv has announced that, as of 15 May 2016, all their products will cease working: the Revolv service will no longer be available, its app will not open, and its hub won’t work either.

Although this is an inexcusable decision on the part of any Alphabet company, given the profits which the group makes as a whole, it is hardly surprising. The legal obligations on companies to support products with services which come bundled with them are remarkably weak. There is nothing to stop any corporation unilaterally terminating its contract with you to provide such supporting services, provided that such severance is within the terms of that contract. As the corporations write their own contracts and there is no option for negotiation – you accept their terms or don’t buy the product – every such contract allows them to do that.

Alphabet/Nest/Revolv were careful to ensure that a ‘reasonable’ time had elapsed between selling the last Revolv hub with its one-year warranty, and deciding to brick the whole lot of them. In some markets, those 16 months might be fairly long, but in homes where we hope that bricks and mortar will last decades or centuries, they are but the blink of an eye.

So we are suddenly brought back with a sharp jolt to recall that basic legal premise for the purchase of any product or service: caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. In Europe in particular we are apt to think that consumers are well protected by the law. In reality, whichever jurisdiction you are in, and regardless of their sweet talk, the vendor always remains in control.

We really need consumer protection from abuse of DRM and similar master controls which rest in the hands of vendors. If the law required that Barnes & Noble removed all protection from previously purchased books before the service transferred, UK NOOK users would not have to worry about losing access to the books which they though they had purchased. A similar provision could be made in respect of protected apps and other media like music and movies. There isn’t such a simple remedy in cases like Resolv’s, although a mandatory penalty of, say, half the original price to be repaid to users before severance might bring fairer redress.

We should all be particularly mindful of this when buying products which depend on the provision of services: ask yourself what you are left with if the vendor goes broke, changes their business, or just finds ongoing provision a bit of a nuisance. If the product is rendered useless, as Revolv products will be on 16 May this year, then perhaps your money would be better not going to add to their profits.

Consider your Macs and iOS devices: if Apple were to drop iCloud, shut down the App Stores, and change its business in drastic ways, you would lose a lot of function, but Macs at least would continue to work. Weigh the severity of those consequences against the likelihood of them occurring, and they must remain fairly safe purchases. I am not so sure about software products supplied as services, against a monthly or annual rental, though.

But without the vendor’s support services, almost every IoT device would be bricked in the same way that Revolv’s soon will be. That seems yet another very good reason for being extremely cautious when buying into IoT.