Samsung’s Latest Move Proves the Concept of “Ownership” Is Dying

December 12, 2016

11:20 am

Last Friday, Samsung announced their latest move in dealing with an explosion-prone smartphone: They are rolling out a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 update that will render the phone entirely inoperable. In short, they’re bricking their own nine-month-old product.

It’s the most drastic move Samsung could possibly make, and it’s well justified, given the hazard that the phone’s overheated batteries created. But it’s not the first time in recent memory that a smart device company has done something similar.

Bricking IoT Devices Is a Trend Now

Smartwatch brand Pebble was just bought out by FitBit, which will be stripping it for talent and shutting it down. They’re ending all support and voiding all their warranties.

At least that’s better than Nest’s announcement earlier in the summer: The Alphabet-owned Nest — a company dedicated to the Internet of Things and the future of smarthomes — decommissioned a major smart home hub in May 2016. They didn’t drop tech support, which would have given the devices a slow death: They completely bricked them, noting that their warranty only lasted for a year, and so had run out.

The IoT Destroys Ownership

The Internet of Things, a term referring to the smart devices that connect to the internet even when they don’t have to: Microwaves, fridges, wine bottles and even rectal thermometers can now all receive updates and send push notifications.

The problem is that, if not given constant tech support, these devices can fail at accomplishing basic tasks that a non-IoT could easily do. Perhaps your elevator will shut down if the iOS isn’t updated. And it happens at the whim of the company who sold you the device. You no longer own your own fridge. You simply rent the ability to buy it. Should it be bricked for any reason, there’s now a thousand-dollar piece of useless hardware in your kitchen.

To Fix It, Companies Must Make Devices Function Fine While Offline

Here’s how I phrased the solution back when I reported on the Nest decision back in May:

“Ironically, the catastrophes that affect a highly connected online world are often extremely low-tech in nature: One university allegedly lost its internet when a farmer twenty miles away dug up a fiber line in an attempt to bury the corpse of a cow.
The only solution is for tech companies to ensure their smart devices are capable of functioning as dumb devices, although their tech support subscription service must improve the experience. If the IoT continues functioning semi-normally without internet, consumers will once again have a semblance of ownership over their own hardware. My hopes aren’t high.”

Consumers: Beware

In the meantime, consider these three factors before buying an internet-connected smart device:

The world is moving farther away from ownership: Soon we can swap out personally-owned cars for self-driving Uber-like services, and workspaces for WeWork deals. That’s not all bad. But for the Internet of Things, it might be more trouble than it’s worth.

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Adam is a writer with an interest in a variety of mediums, from podcasts to comic books to video essays to novels to blogging — too many, basically. He's based out of Seattle, and remains a staunch defender of his state's slogan: "sayWA." In his spare time, he recommends articles about science fiction on Twitter, @AdamRRowe

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