Friday, June 12, 2015

Dystopia of Things

The Thing on Internet

I've now had an "Internet of Things" device for about a year. It is Logitech Harmony HUB, an universal remote controller. It comes with a traditional remote, but the interesting part is that it allows me to use my smartphone/tablet as remote over WiFi. With the android app it provides a rather nice use experience, yet I can see the inevitable end in anger.

Bare minimum GPL respect

Today, the GPL sources for hub are available - at least the kernel and a patch for busybox. The proper GPL release is still only through written offer. The sources appeared online April this year while Hub has been sold for two years already. Even if I ordered the GPL CD, it's unlikely I could build a modified system with it - too many proprietary bits. The whole GPL was invented by someone who couldn't make a printer do what he wanted. The dystopian today where I have to rewrite the whole stack running on a Linux-based system if I'm not happy what's running there as provided by OEM.

App only

The smartphone app is mandatory. The app is used to set up the hub. There is no HTML5 interface or any other way to control to the hub - just the bundled remote and phone apps. Fully proprietary apps, with limited customization options. And if app store update removes a feature you have used.. well you can't get it from anywhere anymore. The dystopian today where "Internet of Things" is actually "Smartphone App of Things".

Locked API

Maybe instead of modifying the official app you could write your own UI? Like one screen with only the buttons you ever use when watching TV? There *is* an API with delightful headline "Better home experiences, together". However, not together with me, the owner of the harmony hub. The official API is locked to selected partners. And the API is not to control the hub - it's to let the hub connect to other IoT devices. Of course, for talented people, locked api is usually just undocumented api. People have reverse engineered how the app talks to the hub over wifi. Curiously it is actually Jabber based with some twists like logging credentials through Logitech servers. The dystopian today where I can't write programs to remotely control the internet connected thing I own without reverse engineering protocols.

Central Server

Did someone say Logitech servers? Ah yes, all configuring of the remote happens via myharmony servers, where the database of remote controllers lives. There is some irony in calling the service *my* harmony when it's clearly theirs. The communication with cloud servers leaks at minimum back to Logitech what hardware I control with my hub. At the worst, it will become an avenue of exploits. And how long will Logitech manage these servers? The moment they are gone, harmony hub becomes a semi-brick. It will still work, but I can't change any configuration anymore. The dystopian future where the Internet of Thing will stop working *when* cloud servers get sunset

What now

This is not just the Harmony hub - this is a pattern that many IoT products follow - Linux based gadget, smartphone app, cloud services, monetized apis. After the gadget is bought, the vendor has little incentive to provide any updates. After all, the next chance I'll carry them money is when the current gadget gets obsolete.

I can see two ways out. The easy way is to get IoT gadgets as monthly paid service. Now the gadget vendor has the right incentive - instead of trying to convince me to buy their next gadget, their incentive is to keep me happily paying the monthly bill. The polar opposite is to start making open competing IoT's, and market to people the advantage of being yourself in control. I can see markets for both options. But half-way between is just pure dystopy.

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