One overarching question facing IoT manufacturers is: does everything need to be smart? Manufacturers are beginning to investigate whether there is an advantage to device being online. However, when making devices smart another issue arises for the manufacturer: that of technical support and ongoing maintenance.
“Demand for internet enabled devices continues to climb as these gadgets have rapidly matured to provide virtually anything a business or consumer would like with the added convenience of being able to manage it through a web app or a mobile device. IoT devices continuously appear on the market with amazing specs, great packaging and, in many cases, manufacturer names nobody has ever heard. For instance, searching for ‘IP Cameras’ on Amazon will result in 50 or more of the exact same camera; each with a unique manufacturer name. Given the number of similar or identical products repackaged but not necessarily unique in any other significant way, the device and manufacturer are likely to disappear within a few months, never to be seen again,” said Tim Jensen, Senior Penetration Tester for BSI’s Cybersecurity and Information Resilience.
How does this impact the consumer?
Because of the expected lifespan of a product in the past, a manufacturer disappearing wouldn’t have mattered for most people because if you buy a camera and it works for 10 years, then there is no problem and your expectations are likely to have been met or exceeded. Unfortunately, with many IoT devices this is no longer the reality as product lifespan is often dependent on ongoing support, such as software and security updates.
In today’s market, where new and improved products are released regularly, people tend to pay the price for manufacturers dropping product support, removing network infrastructure, adding or increasing subscription fees, or failing to resolve technical issues that cause early obsolescence.
In an ideal world, allowing the consumer to know how long the device will be supported would be a very beneficial part of the purchasing decision. For example, if a manufacturer launches a new device on the market but sales don’t meet expectations, how long will the early adopters have to use the device? Will the product be killed off early, or will their owners get the expected lifespan out of the device?
To provide peace of mind for the consumer, a guaranteed support lifespan and end of life expiration date for the device should clearly be marked on the website and preferably on the packaging, as well. I’ve personally had several devices that I enthusiastically embraced become paper weights over the last few years due to the manufacturer discontinuing support earlier than expected.
I’m sure many have purchased the latest and greatest shiny object, such as the smart product that is guaranteed to make life easier, only to find that the enhanced features require a monthly or yearly subscription. By their very nature, device subscription fees have a strong chance of being abused as there is often no guarantee that the cost will hold over time.
Even if the subscription service is a known part of the device, consumers and businesses take into account if they must pay a monthly or yearly fee before making an IoT purchase decision. If the fee is not guaranteed or is increased beyond what the purchaser deems sustainable, the product is likely to be added to that paper weight status.
In some cases, the fee comes later. For instance, IoT manufacturers who have offered free infrastructure and support for years later imposes a monthly fee for continued use. This is a risky gamble for a manufacturer; selling a large number of devices and then suddenly forcing a ‘pay us monthly or your devices are useless’ business model will likely alienate users and cause distrust within entire IoT market.
Manufacturers should clearly state if a fee will be required initially or in the future. Manufacturers should also always allow the device to operate in the original purchased state for the length of the declared product support.
Security and usability
One of the most frequently reported issues with IoT devices relates to weak credentials, unpatched vulnerabilities and outdated components. The vast majority of IoT devices require users to either manually check for updates through the device, or to check manufacturer webpages for updates and download them and update them manually. This has proven to be an extremely dangerous way of building systems and is borderline negligence on the manufacturer’s part.
Similar to cell phones and computers, IoT devices should automatically check for updates and apply them without user interaction. Manufactures could offer an option to disable automatic updates, putting the risk on the device owner, but most IoT devices can be down for a few minutes a month without anyone noticing. To prevent a bad update causing wide-spread device destruction, manufacturers can place devices into update groups and spread out updates over several days or a week, providing time for complaints to roll in before irreparable damage is done.
With a few exceptions, it seems that a majority of companies are jumping on the bandwagon to make every device smart without seeming to think about future support or maintenance.
As an IT professional, I along with many of my colleagues are leery of smart technology, such as smart sensors, and very picky about what devices we’ll connect to the internet. This is very telling of the overall trust of the market, and without trust the IoT market is going to have difficulty growing further. IoT has the chance to truly change the world and make it a better place, but that will not happen without careful planning and consideration.
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