Imagine that Microsoft announces tomorrow that it’s going to terminate the Windows brand. No more Windows, but at least no more Blue Screen of Death, too. The kill-command will be sent in one month from now, good luck with your life and we’re sorry for the inconvenience. Oh, and we can do that because the one-year warranty on the product has expired.
Does that seem legal to you? Or even more important: does it look like an ethical behavior? Do we, as a society, want companies to behave that way towards their customers?
Well, that is exactly what Google is doing right now: tapping into people’s houses and shutting down a certain piece of hardware which they acquired some time ago. The hardware in case is the Revolv smart home hub – a device used to control the house’s doors, lights, speakers and any other connected elements that exist in smart homes. The Revolv used to cost $299, with the price including the Revolv Hub, Revolv App, and a lifetime subscription. However, about 1.5 years ago Revolv was bought by Nest, which itself was bought by Google. Now, Google / Nest are terminating Revolv permanently.
I guess lifetimes just don’t last as much as they used to, nowadays.
To be clear, Google is not just terminating support for Revolv, or taking down the Revolv App. I could potentially accept that, even though it’s somewhat of a shaky ground. But Google is taking it one step further. Here’s what they write in their press release –
“…we’re pouring all our energy into Works with Nest and are incredibly excited about what we’re making. Unfortunately, that means we can’t allocate resources to Revolv anymore and we have to shut down the service. As of May 15, 2016, your Revolv hub and app will no longer work.”
Notice the highlighted “your” Revolv hub. Can it really be called “your” device anymore, when Google can simply reach inside anytime and shut it down?
The press release includes a specific reference to warranty issues, claiming that –
“…Our one-year warranty against defects in materials or workmanship has expired for all Revolv products.”
I’m going to hazard a guess that Google’s lawyers have looked into the contract, the terms and conditions and all the rest of the legalese talk needed for this decision to become public. In other words, there’s a good chance that the law allows this kind of behavior. It seems absurd – the general use of the term warranty says nothing about intentional sabotage of the device by the people in charge maintaining it – but maybe it’s legal. Maybe.
But it can’t possibly be ethical.
Of course, ethics are dictated by the norms of society. If Google’s behavior is tolerated, that means the norms of society themselves are changing.
In fact, that’s exactly what’s happening.
As I mentioned in a previous post in this blog, remote updates and cloud services lead us into a new kind of economy, where firms no longer sell their products but actually lease them to the customers without saying that outright. Tesla sells us a computer in the shape of a car, but can then update and make alterations to the software controlling the vehicle. Microsoft sells you a Windows operating system, and can badger you for eternity when the time comes for you to update into a new model. And yes, one company can sell you a piece of hardware, and two years later send a kill-command to the device in your home.
Why Is This Bad for You?
Why is this kind of behavior bad for the consumer? Actually, it’s not that harmful as long as firms are under legal obligation to take care of the devices they sell, unlike what Google is doing now. However, even in that case there could be an added complication. In the new winner takes all digital economy, there are usually only one or two big winners in every field. Facebook, for example, has no competitors in the social media world in English. Likewise, eighty percent of internet users rely on Google as their primary search engine. Amazon and Alibaba are competing with each other with 304 and 350 million customers respectively, and no real competition other than each other.
What happens, then, when one of these major service providers decides to shut down the lights on one of their projects? Or if hackers gain control over one of those globe-spanning services, due to the centralized nature of the service providers? There is no real and immediate alternative for many of the winner takes all digital services. The users will find themselves stranded without the products they’ve become reliant on.
You may say that the free market will make sure that companies won’t vanquish winning services. You may be right, but just realizing that companies have the power to do that should make you think. Google can, hypothetically, shut down Gmail tomorrow, or at least by the end of the year. How do we make sure that in a decade from now, Google won’t be able to also shut down your smart house, or your smart car?
We’re heading into a new economy with new rules for big firms. At this time of change, it is inevitable that some companies – including Google – will test the new surroundings to find out just how much they can get away with. A line needs to be drawn between releasing firms from their past commitment to certain apps and services, and between negatively reprogramming user end-devices.
And since the big firms are just getting larger and more influential every year, we should probably start drawing it today,