Abandoned Tech: When IoT Devices and Solutions Get Left Behind
What happens when Internet of Things devices are phased out or good tech gets left on the cutting-room floor?
No matter what industry you’re in, if you’re using IoT (Internet of Things) devices and solutions, you’ve heard it all: The IoT will boost productivity and decrease equipment downtime! It’ll help you generate new revenue, improve customer satisfaction, and make data-driven decisions that’ll help your business succeed! You’ve also heard that the IoT opens your business to unknown threats, broadening cybercriminals’ attack surface by more than you care to dwell on mentally. And you’ve heard the horror stories, like the time a hacker used a connected thermometer in a Las Vegas casino’s lobby aquarium to gain access to the casino’s high-roller database.
When businesses and consumers adopt IoT devices and systems, they also leave themselves open to the possibility that one day, for one reason or another, these devices may be phased out or otherwise abandoned by their original developers—i.e., they may become orphans. When faced with an orphan technology, device, or solution, what is an end user to do?
Sometimes, orphan technology is simply a matter of the wrong place or the wrong time at a big company. In these cases, the technology may just need someone to swoop in and save it from lying dormant on the cutting-room floor of big corporations’ R&D (research and development) departments. In other cases, orphan devices are a result of a failed startup or a company simply changing direction, and the latter scenario is when many customers’ tempers start to flare.
In 2014, Nest Labs announced its acquisition of Revolv, which at the time was offering a $299 smart-home automation device called the Revolv hub. Nest (a Google-owned company) pretty quickly bricked the product after the acquisition. Revolv hub owners were not pleased, and they complained loudly on the Internet, in some cases holding Nest co-founder Tony Fadell responsible and calling him all kinds of unflattering things in their blogs and social media posts.
Revolv customers who were left with a $299 “container of hummus”, as tech blogger Arlo Gilbert hilariously referred to the now-worthless hub, wondered what would be next. What other connected products would Google leave orphaned in the field?
The Peggy Smedley Show:
AT&T Business Summit
AT&T Business Summit
Peggy Smedley is joined by Chris Penrose, president, Internet of Things, AT&T Business, and James Brehm, founder and chief technology evangelist, James Brehm & Associates, who discuss the verticals seeing the most IoT (Internet of Things) penetration. They also discuss the AT&T Foundry and why it is important to brainstorm and change how companies operate businesses. Finally, they talk about the trends going forward, including the fact that every business will change the way they operate by introducing IoT technologies.
Phased-out devices and bricked products create an unpleasant circumstance—a circumstance that tech users can’t do much to protect themselves against. However, not all orphans are products of failure, and not all of them are doomed to become worthless bricks (or containers of hummus).
The Risky Business of Abandonment
The Revolv hub debacle is a famous real-world example of an orphaned IoT device. Sanjay Sarma, professor of mechanical engineering and vice president for open learning at MIT, points to an almost-example, Wink, to show that many products are saved from this fate, even if it looks like they’re headed there for a time.
When the Wink brand’s parent company, Quirky, filed for bankruptcy in 2015, the smart-home platform nearly went the way of the Revolv hub. Fortunately for Wink product owners, the platform was acquired by Flex, and it lived on.
Sarma says there are many reasons an IoT-connected device, product, or solution may become orphaned. “The first is that in a fast-evolving ecosystem space like (the) IoT, a product can quickly be left behind by changes in standards, unavailability of ‘bridges,’ discontinuation of a cloud service, etc.,” Sarma says. “A second reason is that a number of products are coming from startups, which may themselves go bust. A third phenomenon is when competitors catch up and render a product that is really a retrofit—well, retro. I expect this will happen to a number of products that are trying to make old cars behave like newer snazzier models with voice interfaces.”
A fourth reason a device may be abandoned by its original developer is cybersecurity. “When a product has a cybersecurity issue, a company may decide to abandon it, especially if updating is difficult,” adds Sarma. Whether a product has a security issue before abandonment or not, these devices can become unsafe after they lose support. When devices are left to their own devices, stranded without access to software updates and security patches, these devices are left exposed and their end users left vulnerable.
Risky is how Craig Young, principal security researcher at Tripwire VERT (Vulnerability and Exposure Research Team), would describe situations in which consumers and businesses run devices with out-of-date and unmaintained software.
“When device vendors go out of business, there may be products in the field which still ‘phone home’ to the vendor’s infrastructure for product updates, remote access, or other content,” Young says. “This can be very problematic if domain names became available for an attacker to re-register. This could ultimately open the door for attackers to install new software on the ‘orphan’ devices or use them as a gateway into private networks.”
For consumers looking to avoid falling into this trap in the first place, Young says in general, consumers don’t have a lot of options for insulating themselves against this type of risk. However, an open-source product may be less risky.
“With fully open-source products, devices can be supported by a community of advanced users after the vendor abandons a device,” he says, “but this is not the norm and shouldn’t be relied upon. Even when companies may guarantee a set number of years of support for a device, it is unclear what happens if the business fails or if the company is simply unresponsive to security reports.”
For businesses, MIT’s Sarma considers orphan technology to be a sort of occupational risk—one that is hard, if not impossible to avoid. “This is a brave new world,” Sarma says. “Those who are brave need to be diligent and willing to methodically inventory and discard vulnerable equipment. Treat them like blighted limbs on a tree and prune them.”
“When device vendors go out of business, there may be products in the field which still ‘phone home’ to the vendor’s infrastructure for product updates, remote access, or other content.” –Craig Young, Tripwire VERT
Can You Protect Your IoT Business from Cyber Risk?
Cybersecurity: It’s a question that can never be answered with 100% confidence or certainty. In fact, the real question that every company working to implement an IoT (Internet of Things) strategy should be asking is, how can it protect a business from cyber risk?
Abandoning IoT Tech; Say What?
Orphan devices and solutions in the fast pace world of the IoT (Internet of Things): Have you really given much thought to this topic? For the purposes of this column, when it comes to orphan technology, I am basically going to address devices, platforms, and solutions that have been abandoned by their original developers for one reason or another.
User Experience Does Matter In IoT
When we talk about the IoT (Internet of Things), we talk a lot about growth, growth, growth. That’s because no matter how much we all want to avoid hype, there are just so many areas of opportunity for the IoT, and it’s hard not to talk about the possibilities.
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Turning Lemons into Lemonade
Besides abandonment and bankruptcy, Stina Linge, head of startup programs at Chalmers Ventures, describes another situation that may lead to orphan technology. “The orphaned technology we come in contact with is usually a result of R&D or innovation processes within larger companies where disruptive technology is developed and the company understood that the technology doesn’t fit within their core business but still (has) big market potential outside their area,” Linge says. “What we offer is a program where we can partner up with these companies, match them with entrepreneurship students, and facilitate the process of commercializing the technology.”
The Encubation program is the vessel through which the Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship matches idea partners, such as R&D-intensive companies or academic researchers, with entrepreneurship students with the goal of creating new startups.
A technology that may be a lemon of sorts for one company may be far from it to another group of people who have the time and resources available to dedicate to the project. This second group of people must take the tech under their wings and invest in bringing it to its full potential, essentially turning lemons into lemonade.
Source: ReVibe Energy
One success story is ReVibe Energy, a startup company that began its journey by turning an orphan technology from Saab into a commercial IoT product. ReVibe leverages a unique vibration energy harvesting technology that helps customers convert the vibrations present in most industrial environments into electricity capable of powering their sensors and monitoring systems.
Viktor Börjesson, the company’s CEO, says Per Cederwall invented ReVibe’s technology while Cederwall was working for Saab Training and Simulations (now part of Saab Dynamics). “The original idea was to use the vibrations generated by battle tanks to power laser detectors that Saab was using in their training systems.
It was simply a case of Per trying to come up with a clever way to eliminate the need for cables and batteries to power a sensor,” Börjesson says. “However, the technology wasn’t deemed to fall within Saab’s core business, and Saab Venture (Saab’s venture capital branch) was given the task of spinning the idea out to external entrepreneurs.”
At this point, Börjesson and his colleague Erik Godtman Kling, together with Saab Ventures, Chalmers University of Technology, and Per Cederwall evaluated the technology and found that vibration energy harvesting could fill a void in the rapidly growing IoT market—especially in the realm of the IIoT (industrial IoT). When Börjesson and Kling first took over, Börjesson admits feeling an initial lack of ownership over the technology. However, in the end, he says the fact that the tech was not the new team’s “baby” was a benefit.
“This is a brave new world. Those who are brave need to be diligent and willing to methodically inventory and discard vulnerable equipment. Treat them like blighted limbs on a tree and prune them.” – Sanjay Sarma, MIT
“We decided to use this to our advantage and really put the technology to the test and let the market evaluate if it was worth investing in or not,” Börjesson explains. “The test came out positive, and, today, the entire team is feeling a strong sense of ownership but still hangs on to the sensible approach of always asking ourselves: Are we building products that the customer needs? And the answer should always be ‘yes.’”
Börjesson points out a couple of practical reasons a technology may be left behind by its original inventor, including a lack of time or resources to bring the technology to market properly or a poor market fit at a particular place or moment in time. “In my opinion, neither of these reflect the potential of the technology itself, as it could just be a case of bad timing,” he says.
Like Young, Börjesson highlights the benefits of open source in addressing abandoned technology. “In this day and age, where the will and power of the larger community is so strong, I believe it would be a brilliant opportunity, both for the original owners and the users, to make the software/hardware available as open source,” he says. “A popular application that no longer receives support from its owners could easily be developed further by its community of users if the source code is made available at GitHub or similar and actually become a better application—as no one knows better what the users want than the users themselves.”
BI Intelligence projects there will be more than 55 billion IoT devices by 2025, and investment in the IoT will continue to accelerate, reaching an aggregate of nearly $15 trillion between 2017 and 2025. As the IoT continues to grow and blossom, attracting all kinds of startups and fresh ideas, some of these ideas will inevitably fail to pan out. For the businesses and consumers who were first in line to adopt these devices and solutions, this could mean frustration, wasted monetary and time investments, and all kinds of security risks once their products and platforms lose support.
…there will be more than
55 billion IoT devices by 2025…
To avoid bringing solutions to market that may eventually become orphans, Chalmers Ventures’ Linge says businesses must verify the market potential in the early stages of development. If a company is onto something good, but ends up with a misfit technology that just doesn’t line up with its business goals, Linge encourages those in this situation to look beyond their four walls and try to find someone else who can adopt it. For an eager entrepreneur or startup company, an orphan solution may find an even better home than the one it left.
Since the IoT is relatively new in some circles, the issue of orphan devices may not have come to a head. Phased-out devices may be an unavoidable part of IoT growth and continued innovation, because companies looking to move forward may not be willing or able to continue to commit to legacy devices and systems forever. As the industry matures, however, best practices for handling these types of situations with tact will develop, informing parties on both ends about how to navigate these tricky waters.
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