Revolv and the curse of the early adopter

Tech blogs lit up this week with fallout from the announcement that home automation platform Nest plans to permanently disable its customers’ Revolv devices — the leftovers of a 2014 acquisition that, as stated at the time, was clearly about Nest’s interest in the Revolv team rather than the product. But even though Revolv’s days were numbered, this sudden and unilateral ending has surprised and angered many users and commentators who worry about which device will be torn out from under them next.

In the volatile Internet of Things startup market, promising tech companies wink in and out of existence like mayflies. A lucky few manage to carve out a niche of independent commercial success. Vastly more never get off the ground, failing in their crowdfunding efforts or running out of seed money before their dream is much more than a handful of prototypes.

The remainder either gain just enough traction to build an enthusiastic user base but not enough to reach long-term financial stability, or are acquired but repurposed away from their initial business as Revolv was. In either case, they eventually have to face a tricky set of end-of-life questions. How will they fulfill outstanding obligations to customers, like hardware warranties and tech support assistance? For how long can they keep cloud servers and services running? How will they handle user data? And, perhaps most important: How will they communicate the process to their customers?

Some companies have handled these questions with admirable grace. Ninja Blocks was one of the first IoT startups to strike it big on Kickstarter, but wasn’t able to leverage that success with private investors. When the time came to start closing up shop last year, the founders had a simple explanation for their backers and presale customers: “We’ve run out of money.”

Ninja Blocks also had a clear succession plan that showed how the team had carefully thought through what it meant to stop development — and especially what it meant for their customers. They acknowledged that a few customers wouldn’t get everything they’d ordered, offered refunds where possible, and took ownership of the fact that the whole situation “really suck[ed]”.

Crucially, they recognized that the end of the company didn’t need to mean the end of the line for users. Before walking away for good, the Ninja Blocks team arranged to keep their cloud servers running for at least two years, and followed through on their promise to open-source the Ninja Sphere cloud platform so users could set up alternate servers for their home automation devices.

“You have everything you need to keep Sphere growing and improving,” the Ninja Blocks team wrote. “We will be around to give advice, and push those updates to Spheres if you tell us to. … Alternatively, you could also tell us to piss off, and run your own cloud instead (there will be instructions telling you how to do that).”

Berg went a similar route to maintain support for its Little Printer when the firm went under. The exit plan included a skeleton crew that kept the official servers running for months after the company had ceased all other activities, and former CEO Matt Webb has continued to spearhead an open-source effort to allow the printers to talk to community-run servers.

By comparison, Nest's terse, short-notice statement (“As of May 15, 2016, your Revolv hub and app will no longer work.”) has been interpreted in some corners as user-hostile. Self-professed “home automation nut” Arlo Gilbert calls it “a pretty blatant ‘fuck you’ to every person who trusted in them and bought their hardware.”

Tech enthusiasts have always run the risk of their favorite new gadget fizzling or being eclipsed by something newer and shinier, but rarely does a bought-and-paid-for product stop working because a far-off executive decides to forcibly pull the plug. Nest's move calls into question the nature of ownership in an age where nearly everything has an Internet connection.

Despite the money they’ve paid and their physical possession of their devices, Revolv customers have no choice but to wait for the inevitable bricking. Legally, they can’t even attempt to modify their own devices without the company’s consent. Tech blogger and author Cory Doctorow points out that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it a felony to create alternative operating systems that Revolv users could install to keep their hubs working.

“The DMCA's anti-circumvention rules are a system that makes corporations into the only ‘people’ who get to own property — everything you ‘buy’ is actually a license, dictated by terms of service that you've never read and certainly never agreed to, which give companies the right to reach into your home and do anything they want with the devices you've paid for,” Doctorow wrote.

“That’s not how technology should work,” wrote Ali Jelveh, co-founder of Protonet, in response to the Revolv announcement. Protonet is an example of how some startups are taking close-of-business scenarios into account from day one, and finding that the best solutions often intersect with the creators’ ideologies about data privacy, product ownership, and digital rights.

ZOE Marketing
Zoe Marketing

The company’s Zoe home automation hub is designed around privacy and autonomy from the cloud. It stores user data locally and connects directly with other smart home gadgets, so it’s less reliant on remote servers and the inherent privacy concerns they entail. Even the voice recognition features are stepped back from the cloud, with an expandable lexicon of commands that can be recognized via the device’s own firmware (an optional cloud service is available to help process stuff Zoe can’t recognize on its own yet). And, of course, Zoe’s code is open-source.

Though these features are all promoted in terms of privacy and reliability, the Protonet team seems fully aware — even proud — that they’re creating a product that could easily outlive their company.

“We made sure that Zoe works without relying on somebody else's cloud,” Jelveh wrote in a recent update to Indiegogo backers. “By giving you access to the source code on it - we're opening it up to a community of supporters. To build, extend and maintain if needed.”

This kind of forethought will be appreciated by many customers, though it doesn’t mitigate all of the risks — not least of which is that when a commercial product turns open-source, it often places a greater burden on the user to manage its configuration and keep it up-to-date. Customers who want the convenience of a professionally-maintained product may find it’s not worth the effort. And those who are willing to commit to a DIY approach may prefer noncommercial projects like UBOS and Home Assistant.

Still, local data storage and open-source designs allow companies to honor the user’s central place in the technology equation, and do their best to stave off the curse of the early adopter — which, ironically, most afflicts those who provide the greatest support for innovative and experimental products. There’s no way to completely avoid the cutthroat churn of the IoT market nor the double-edged sword of the cloud, but hopefully more companies will take steps to soften the blow and allow users to decide for themselves when and how to let a favorite technology fade away.

Related: Nest acquisition Revolv does a 180

Ted Burnham
Ted Burnham

Professional Combobulator

May 20,2016