'Smart' Devices That Are Making Our Lives A Total Nightmare
By connecting all your appliances to the Internet, you can use a single smartphone or hub to easily control everything in the house. (Except for your significant other, who will immediately leave you for the type of person willing to walk across the room to use a lightswitch.) But it turns out the "Internet of Things" might have come with even bigger problems, for example ...
When Flywheel Lost A Legal Battle Their Bikes Were Bricked
Most people like the idea of exercise, but are too physically repulsed by other human beings to attend an actual cycling class. Well, Flywheel thought they had the solution. In 2017, the company launched an extremely expensive, WiFi-enabled stationary bike that allowed you to take part in live-streamed cycling lessons from the comfort of your own home. It was a brilliant product, which is probably why Peloton had been selling it since 2013. Peloton quickly sued for copyright infringement, alleging that Flywheel had copied design elements, and that a Flywheel backer had gone undercover as a potential investor to sneak a peek at their business model.
It was all pretty standard corporate intrigue, nowhere near as interesting as that time Air Canada had a private detective in fake glasses and goatee spying on WestJet's CEO. But it suddenly became of great interest to Flywheel owners when Peloton won the lawsuit and all their bikes turned into worthless bricks. As part of the settlement, Flywheel agreed to shut down all their virtual classes and other online offerings. The owners didn't even get to hear about this from Flywheel, they all suddenly got an email from Peloton, a completely different company, basically saying, "Hey, that bike you bought? Well, it's ours and we're setting it on fire."
Peloton promised that eligible Flywheel owners would be able to exchange their bikes for a refurbished Peloton. But many people bought a Flywheel specifically because they didn't want a Peloton, since Flywheel's classes focused more on fitness and less on disbarred life coaches screaming inspirational slogans. Also, it turned out that "eligible" meant people who bought their Flywheels outright. If you had financed your purchase of a $2,000 exercise bike through a lender, well ... sucks to be you, poors, you get nothing. The Flywheels did still work as offline exercise bikes, but you can get a stationary bike for like $250 and an actual bike for whatever bolt cutters cost these days. Nobody spends two grand on a goddamn exercise bike.
Peloton have a right to defend their patents, but this isn't how copyright protection has ever worked before. If you bought a nice book and it turned out to be plagiarized, Simon and Schuster wouldn't burst through your front door and hurl it into a woodchipper. (Also, it's worth noting that Peloton has managed to turn their cratering business model around thanks to the intervention of an international plague, so good for them we guess?)
Sonos Wants You To "Recycle" Old Speakers And Buy New Ones
Successful startup Sonos sells smart speakers (by the seashore). The company's pricey products are very popular with the kind of people who can say "revolutionizing the multiroom wireless speaker ecosystem," with a straight face. But Sonos caused a major controversy in late 2019, when details emerged of their nefarious plot to revolutionize the local landfill ecosystem by adding a bunch of speakers to it. The company offered a 30 percent discount on new speakers if owners committed to recycling their old speakers by putting them in "recycle mode." What exactly did this wonderful recycle mode do?
Broke the speaker so it could never be used again.
Once activated, the recycle mode feature began a 21-day countdown, after which the speaker was permanently disabled. Customers were then supposed to take the speakers to a recycling center. Sonos claimed this was to "encourage responsible disposal of older devices." But the most environmentally responsible way to recycle an old device is actually to give it away or sell it secondhand. Which is the very thing Sonos was trying to prevent by bricking the speaker you paid for. Seriously, "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" is actually in order of importance, which is why most computers aren't packaged with a live hand grenade labelled "Factory Reset Option."
In the worst-case scenario, the speaker just ended up dumped in a landfill. In the best case, the speaker was stripped for parts and then the unusable stuff got dumped in a landfill, even though very few recycling posters feature a smiling family tossing a plastic speaker casing into a former pelican reserve. To make things even worse, there have been reports of people buying a secondhand speaker, unaware that it had been placed in recycle mode and would turn into a very expensive footstool within 21 days. Other users complained they had accidentally bricked their own speakers by unintentionally activating the self-destruct sequence.
After months of stonewalling, the company finally ended the recycle mode program earlier this year. But the whole thing is actually part of a pattern of behavior by Sonos, which is impressively determined not to waste any money supporting older equipment. In fact, the company clearly doesn't want any of its equipment lasting longer than five years, which is horrible both for the consumer and the environment. The company has previously put out firmware updates to deliberately brick old equipment. In 2020, they announced they would stop all software updates for products made earlier than 2015, meaning they would eventually stop working. It's basically like if you bought a new sports car, only for Lamborghini to inform you that they owned all the replacement parts and would refuse to sell you any after a few years. Buy a new car or hit the bricks, ya bum!
Tractor Hackers Are A Thing Now
Agricultural equipment is a multi-billion dollar global business, with high-tech tractors and other heavy machinery commanding hefty prices. So you might be surprised to learn that forking over six figures won't actually buy you the entire tractor. According to market leader John Deere, you're merely paying for "an implied license" to use the software that controls the whole machine. As a result, farmers are basically forbidden from repairing their own equipment. They can't even replace a transmission because the software won't recognize the new part unless a John Deere technician drives all the way out and approves it. Which costs about $230 up front, plus $130 per hour.
One Nebraska farmer was racing to harvest corn before an approaching windstorm when his combine glitched. He lost 15 percent of his crop while waiting five hours for a technician to show up and perform a simple half-hour fix. As a result, many farmers are now turning to tractor hackers. Yes, seriously. There are whole sites dedicated to it, while Eastern European hackers run underground, invite-only forums where they sell pirated tractor software that allows farmers to fix or modify their own machines. Imagine if every time your car needed a simple tweak you had to send $3,000 in bitcoin to a Ukrainian forum dweller called DaSparkPlugPlug.
The big equipment companies have various excuses for why you can't just repair a tractor like a car, even though the real answer is clearly money. For example, they say they're concerned farmers will disable the emissions control software. But farmers say the current situation is actually worse for the environment. When the warranty expires, many farmers simply get hackers to delete the emissions software entirely, because it tends to repeatedly freeze and brick the whole machine and they can't simply reboot it without paying for a costly company mechanic. Others keep their machines running all night because icing can also cause emissions control glitches, which mean losing hours waiting for a technician, even if they're easy to fix.
There's a growing right-to-repair movement arguing that buying a machine should mean being allowed to mess around with it as much as you want. After all, farmers have always been proud of their self-reliance, and even prouder of not paying a guy $130 per hour to drive to the ass end of Iowa and plug in a USB stick. More importantly, if these restrictions were expanded to cars, they would make it completely impossible to trick out your '95 Mitsubishi Eclipse with a sick nitrous line and drag-race around downtown Tokyo. Is that the world you want?
Smart Pet Feeders Can Go Offline And Starve Your Pets
In today's fast-paced world, having pets can be tricky. Suppose you need to stay late at work one night, but you also have nine hungry dobermans at home and you think the biggest one might be figuring out how to use a gun. Luckily, smart pet feeders are around to take all the hassle out of feeding time. You can set them up to dispense food automatically, or even use your smartphone to remotely trigger meals if you get held up, or just don't feel like getting off the couch. There's no judgment! Certainly not from your pets, who will immediately transfer 100 percent of their loyalty to the robot.
But smart feeders are like every other sleek, expensive Internet of Things gizmo: buggy pieces of shit that need to be online all the time for no reason and will absolutely break randomly and without warning. You can jet off to Bali for an organic enema weekend at Jack Dorsey's unlicensed ashram, happily press the "feed pet" button daily, and return to find no food dispensed and a very irritated boa constrictor. That's basically what happened in February, when the Petnet smartfeeder abruptly went offline for a full week, leaving pets confused and humans furious, and vice versa. Some pet owners were out of town and had to call on friends, or else spend hours on Skype, trying to talk a confused dachshund through the intricacies of can opener use.
Petnet initially updated that a vague "server outage" meant feeders would "appear offline," largely because they were offline. They added that preset automatic feedings should still work, but then urgently followed up saying that users should under no circumstances try turning the feeder off and back on again. You know, the exact thing people immediately do when their devices appear offline? Instead of releasing further updates, the entire Petnet team apparently retreated to some kind of fortified bunker, leaving customers unable to contact anybody for the rest of the week. Fortunately, everybody who was out of town apparently saw the original notification, while everybody who works late just got to stress-test the fence between the wolf enclosure and next door's Montessori.
There are even weirder problems. One security expert discovered that her Xiaomi pet feeder was insanely hackable, meaning that any cyber-expert or bored teen could have amused themselves by messing around with her cat's feeding schedule. It doesn't seem like that's ever happened though, because the Internet's love of cute animals may have briefly won out over its inherent evil.
Smart Locks Can Lock You Out Of Your House
Smart locks are a must in any trendy modern home, allowing you to glide effortlessly through doors without jingling a big ring of keys like you just threw Bugs Bunny in prison. Some locks can even be unlocked remotely with your smartphone, making it easier than ever to release your hostages once the ransom clears. But like all smart technology, fancy locks are just dumb enough to really screw you over. For example, they can and will shut down completely if the maker ever releases a software update that annoys them.
That's exactly what happened to Lockstate smart locks in 2017, when an update left a "small subset" of locks unable to connect to the company's servers and a small subset of users unable to connect to the inside of their property. Many of the locks had to be physically removed from the door and sent back to Lockstate for a full reset. To make matters worse, the locks were recommended by AirBnb and could be integrated with their system. When a booking was made, the locks automatically generated a code for those days, then sent it to users as part of their confirmation email. So you could happily arrive for your dream vacation only to find that you couldn't actually get into that cute little spot you saved up for. And Lockstate didn't even really publicize the problem, since they needed to "sell new locks as well. Promoting that there is a problem with less than 8 percent of our locks doesn't help that."
Many smart locks can also be opened with a key, but that backup is of limited use, because after about six months of effortless use, very few mentats can remember to take a physical key with them every time they step outside. There are also significant privacy concerns, with tenants complaining landlords shouldn't be able to track their comings and goings via a smart lock app. Creep concerns aside, "please crawl through this window so my landlord can't tell I'm having a party" is not a great icebreaker. Elderly tenants have also complained that landlords suddenly installed smart locks without consulting them, even though everyone over 70 responds to smart tech with a combination of goat sacrifices and angry yelling.
And, of course, there are security issues. In 2019, researchers found a design flaw that could let hackers remotely lock and unlock doors connected to the popular Zipato hub. Traditional locks have security flaws too, of course, but a guy in a ski mask battering away with a claw hammer tends to be more noticeable than someone with a phone clicking open a door. Plus, when your exercise bike suddenly locks up and vaults you out a window, only for your door to suddenly go dead and trap you outside while your pet feeder goes berserk and sprays kibble everywhere, it's extremely humiliating to end up paying a Latvian hacker to let you back inside your own house.
Top image: Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock