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As Google shuts down Revolv, anxiety about the Internet of Things gears up

Google’s Nest division is shipping a new feature for its Revolv smart-home hub: an expiration date.

That’s probably not the kind of update owners of the Revolv Hub expected when Nest bought the Boulder, Colo., firm that makes the $300 gadget back in October 2014. But on May 15, that gadget — which wirelessly controls other devices in your home — will go offline permanently.

A note on the Revolv homepage says that the company is refocusing its efforts on helping other devices work with Nest gadgets (such as its eponymous smart thermostat). Unfortunately, company co-founders Tim Enwall and Mike Soucie go on to explain, “That means we can’t allocate resources to Revolv anymore and we have to shut down the service.”

So “as of May 15, 2016, your Revolv hub and app will no longer work.”

Disconnected devices, distraught owners

That’s an inglorious end for the hub that earned a 3.5-out-of-5-stars rating from PCMag.com. It’s also a blot on the whole “Internet of Things” idea.

Your old dumb thermostat and light switches may not know how to do anything when you leave or enter the house. But their continued operation isn’t subject to the whims of a distant corporation.

In a blog post on Sunday that promptly got picked up at numerous news sites, Revolv owner Arlo Gilbert ripped into Nest and its corporate parent.

“My landscape lighting will stop turning on and off, my security lights will stop reacting to motion, and my home-made vacation burglar deterrent will stop working,” he wrote. “Google is intentionally bricking hardware that I own.”

It’s not like there wasn’t some foreshadowing to this event: Google stopped selling the Revolv hub when it bought the company, saying it would put the firm’s talents to work on its “Works with Nest” smart-home system.

But deactivating a product only a year and a half after it was last on sale is still harsh. People justifiably complain about Android phones not getting updates, but those unpatched and insecure phones still work to make phone calls, browse the Web, and run apps.

Nest says it’s not turning its back on Revolv customers, but it won’t specify what it’s doing to make them whole.

Wrote spokesman Matt Flegal in an e-mail: “We are continuing to work with customers individually to answer questions and provide compensation for their Revolv product. They can reach customer support at: help@revolv.com.”

Memo to Nest management: Revolv customers will talk about whatever you offer them, so you might as well make the details of this compensation public.

A blow to the “IoT”

A few months ago, I pronounced an Internet-connected smart refrigerator a bad deal because nobody could count on this Samsung fridge getting software upgrades and online services for the next 15 years — a serious risk, considering all of the reports about smart-home devices being jammed or hacked.

That concern now seems borderline persnickety when we’re looking at an “Internet of Things” device getting tossed in the bit bucket less than two years after it goes off-sale. We wanted self-aware home gadgets, and instead we’re getting self-destructing ones.

The (sorry, buzzword) “IoT” industry needs to find a way to state upfront how long a device can expect updates — and to keep those promises.

A January 2015 report by the Federal Trade Commission said as much: “Disclosing the length of time companies plan to support and release software updates for a given product line will help consumers better understand the safe ‘expiration dates’ for their commodity Internet-connected devices.”

But when many IoT vendors are new firms with the same life-expectancy risks of any tech startup, the odds of them all getting anywhere close to, say, Microsoft’s record of supporting Windows XP with bug fixes for over a dozen years look thin.

And it doesn’t help when those of us in the press don’t call out smart-home companies for cutting their customers loose.

Case in point: Nest’s abandonment of Revolv — which Nest announced back in February, but which then went ignored until Gilbert took the time to post his own rant.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.