I’ve written a few threaded tweets on this subject this week, the first prior to reading about the special event Facebook held to tell journalists all about the actions they are taking to limit the spread of fake news, or, as I prefer to call it, lies, conspiracy theories and propaganda. That event turned into a PR disaster, but it has revealed a lot more about their thinking and apparent lack of either understanding or commitment to fixing the problem. Tweets, even threaded ones, are not a great place to write detailed thoughts on a subject as complex and important as this, so I am writing it here.
A week ago today, I was up at 6:30am as normal making lunch for my youngest to take to her pre-school. Typically, when I get to the cooking phase I ask Alexa to turn on the “counter” lights, allowing me to see the stove top without using the high wattage incandescent lights in the hood (aside: I must see if I can get LED replacements for those yet). Somewhat surprisingly, she sat for a few seconds and then said that the Insteon hub the lights were connected to wasn’t responding. That happens sometimes, and I get the Alexa app to search for new devices again and it sorts itself out. Only my phone was still upstairs, so I walked over, switched the lights on myself and forgot about it.
Later in the morning, after the kids were both at school and I was back home working, I popped into the kitchen and asked Alexa to turn on the ceiling lights in the room. Again, she said the hub was not responding. I launched the Insteon app to see what it thought, but it reported the same thing. Next stop, the master closet upstairs where all our internet stuff lives (that’s where the internet comes into the house & where the patch panel is for the phones & Ethernet cabling).
When I got there, the light on the Insteon hub was out. Unplugging and reconnecting did nothing, so I unplugged it and as I did so I caught a whiff of the unmistakable aroma of burnt out electronics.
Taking it back down and popping the bottom off the box, it was very clear that the capacitor, and perhaps the diode, right next to that transformer in the middle of pic were not as they were meant to be (and the underside of the board also showed signs of something getting hot).
In the past, this would have been a simple repair job, but with multi-layer circuit boards and the possibility of damage to the tracks inside the board which I can’t see (and can’t trace easily), I thought it was probably time to order a new one. The only problem with that is that the setup for these things is stored in the device, and not the cloud account. So, swapping the hub is painful. You have to repeat the setup of every switch, socket and I/O controller around the house from scratch.
So, I tweeted and went back to work. In the tweet thread I included the pics of the burnt PCB.
Very quickly I got a response from their social media team:
Sorry to hear you are experiencing issues, based on the photos it looks like we should be able to repair the unit. Please check your DMs
— Insteon (@Insteon) April 20, 2018
I’m used to getting fast responses from companies on Twitter, but not normally ones that are that positive. A few DMs later, and a phone call from them (made within a few mins of me sending the number via a DM) and they had set up a shipping label for me to return the unit for repair. Hopefully, retaining all the config (he thought the memory would be unaffected and they could just transfer it to a new unit).
The replacement unit is due to be delivered by USPS today all being well. That is astounding and I have to say that, while I was not that impressed that it failed, I am totally impressed by their customer service. Easily the best service I have received from any company I’ve bought electronics from.
Internet of Things
I do not know whether the cause of the failure was just time or whether there was a surge that killed it (all the other gear is connected via a surge suppressing power strip, but the Insteon hub needs a direct connection as it talks to the devices around the house over that A/C connection (and, apparently, surge suppressors can also attenuate the communications frequency signals).
One thing that is clear for Internet of Things devices: being cloud backed is essential. I’m not sure what the technical hurdle is with the Insteon system, but being able to get the house settings saved either locally or, better still, into the cloud account that is already associated with the device, seems like an essential. Electronic devices can fail. Whether it is power supplies burning out or other things failing, none of these consumer grade devices last forever (for what it’s worth, even the military grade stuff failed sometimes!). That is not a big deal if a new part can be plugged in to replace the old one with little to no setup pain. We’re not there yet, and I suspect it is not only Insteon gear that does not do well in this regard.
The flip side of that, of course, is that those cloud accounts are potential security issues waiting to happen. Whether it is the data stored in the cloud, or the protocols used by the devices themselves to communicate with the cloud service and, via that service, with remote devices like mobile phones. Somebody being able to mess with the lights in my house would be annoying, but not the end of the world. Somebody being able to interfere with things like smart locks would be a different matter.
Our local, city owned, electricity utility has been working on a project to upgrade all our electricity meters to smart meters. For those that have not heard of these before, a smart meter is essentially the same as a modern digital electricity meter (so none of the moving parts of the classic electricity meter) with the addition of a radio that allows it to send data back to the utility periodically.
In most cases, they record the meter’s value every 15 minutes and then upload blocks of data to the utility periodically.
Up front I want to make it clear that I do not have (and have never had) Sprint mobile phone service in my name. Based on my experiences with them over the past few days, I am pretty certain I never will either. Let me explain more…
Much of the IoT hype is really just the final arrival of the promised connected devices – something that was being touted as imminent while I was at Wind River, but which really needed Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to come of age first. Today, connected devices are everywhere. Even cars are connected.
Now we live in a world where devices can be connected to a home or office network without requiring cabling. And we can wear lightweight devices that can take advantage of the more powerful computer in our pockets (aka a smartphone) for Internet connectivity using just low power Bluetooth connections. In some cases, even permanent devices, like smart door locks, can be battery-powered and use Bluetooth to connect to a local "bridge" device.
In addition to that always on connectivity, these devices needed simpler controls. Whether touch screens that can adapt, or, more recently, voice control, without more natural controls, many IoT devices would be too complex.
Finally, the arrival of meaningful AI is helping make many of these devices at least seem smarter, and be easier to interact with. Often with natural language, or by having the device simply observe & learn.
Amazingly, despite overwhelming amounts of data from myself, and data from people in Oakland, San Francisco and Santa Clara all commenting that their network sees the same issues around the same time of day (late evenings), once again I get a call from Comcast saying they want to come out to my house and attach things to the network here. They truly are fixated with the modem & the cable part of their network. And yet they cannot explain how something in my house could:
- Affect me only for bursts of time in the late evening, but be fine most of the rest of the time
- Affect other people here, and in various other cities in the bay area
Apparently, they just cannot see that this is probably impacting many of their customers. I have spoken to many here who see the issue but don’t have the patience to deal with Comcast’s totally abysmal customer support system. Even when it gets escalated, it appears they cannot get past it being localized to one house.
If they don’t want to look at the data in their routers, perhaps they should try calling some of their customers in the bay area and asking whether they use the network in the late evening regularly, and whether they have seen any issues with it.
Here’s the latest data I sent them:
January 16, 2017 (averaging 37% packet loss in the test):
January 17, 2017 (averaging 18% packet loss in the test):
Also from January 17, the trace showing losses at Sunnyvale again, and from nodes beyond it (likely dropped at Sunnyvale too – something they’ve always said was not happening):
I get it that their network can get loaded; I work in an industry that sees how much data traffic increases month on month as people use more and more high bandwidth services. But Comcast’s only role here is to provide the pipe to the Internet and keep it from being overloaded. I get it that there are huge swings in traffic volume across a 24 hour period; I don’t necessarily expect to see the full bandwidth during peak hours (right now, at 11am on a weekday, for reference, I am seeing about 30Mbps), but dropping to under 1Mbps is unacceptable. And the times when the packet losses are so great that my router decides the Internet is inaccessible are completely unacceptable. Personally, I would say once it drops below 50% of the bandwidth I’m paying for, that is a problem; I suspect they have a lower percentage in mind, but I doubt it is as low as 1%. If they do consider 1% of the contract bandwidth to be acceptable, perhaps the FCC should take a closer look at the service Comcast provides.
The recent acquisition of Pebble by Fitbit, or rather the recent acquisition of some of Pebble’s technology & employees by Fitbit, has left me with a bit of a dilemma. There is a blog post stating that “Fitbit is going out of its way to keep Pebble software and services running through 2017.” Of course, that is only 2017 (and who knows what that really means). But they didn’t buy the hardware, so there will not be new Pebble watches. Of course, it seems likely that there will be a future Fitbit watch with some or all of the Pebble software in it (why else would they buy it), but their existing watches are not very attractive to me.
Then, today, as I was walking to the ferry terminal, this popped up on my phone:
I hadn’t changed watches as far as I knew; in fact, I hadn’t even touched the watch. I happened to look at the phone because I was trying to send a text message. Of course, since the watch had mysteriously reset, I did not get the notification on my wrist. Indeed, my watch had reset completely. Also, when I launched the app on my phone, it wanted me to login again. Logging in, got me to what looked like an empty account. It also indicated that my health database was corrupted (all that data is lost apparently).
Slowly, bits of the old Pebble environment came back. Some of the watchfaces appeared in the locker, then apps. But I couldn’t make any of the watchfaces active. Then, a little later I could again.
If I had to guess (and so far I have not been able to get an answer from the @FitbitSupport folks on Twitter confirming or denying this), I would say that somebody migrated a backend and in doing so broke something. Or maybe the app just crashed and corrupted something (not like it doesn’t crash a lot recently). For now it is back (minus the health data), but I am wondering how long for, and also whether anybody will fix the iOS app, or even update it to remain compatible with future iOS updates.
That led me to looking for alternatives. There was Vector, until Fitbit acquired them too (and said there won’t be more Vector watches). So, what else have I found?
The Withings SteelHR is an interesting device in that it really is a watch, but I think I would be giving up too much to go back to something that basically had an indicator for notifications on it rather than showing me some of the text.
I’m also kind of used to having options on the watch face (something that a real watch can’t do), and the option to combine several pieces of information on the one display (currently, I have steps, sleep patterns, analog time & date as well as status indicators for battery life and bluetooth connectivity).
The CoWatch reminds me more of an Android or Samsung smartwatch. It has one feature that really stood out though: Amazon’s Alexa integrated inside.
This one checks all the boxes in terms of flexibility, and I do quite like the idea of a round screen. Where is fails is in the reviews that suggest it is not quite there yet. When I bought the original Pebble on Kickstarter, I was also buying into an experiment to see how I liked the idea of a smartwatch. My current Pebble is the third one I’ve owned, and I am totally hooked on the concept. Going back to a beta level watch, with all the connectivity problems and missing features doesn’t appeal at this point.
Also, much like the Android and Apple offerings, this one basically requires charging once a day. That is something that puts me off having grown accustomed to a once a week cycle with the Pebble.
The Martian Watches mVoice is another smartwatch with Amazon’s Alexa integrated (and by all accounts the integration is better than the current CoWatch one). But, like the SteelHR, this is an analog watch with a small screen. While it does look like the screen could handle more text than the SteelHR one, it is still much more limited than getting the text message full screen on my Pebble where I can read it.
It is also only splash resistant which makes it a non-starter for me (in the same way that the original Apple watch is not interesting because I can’t swim in it).
Apple Watch Series 2
That takes us to the Apple Watch Series 2. These are water proof, and they certainly deliver on the smartwatch features (although the lack of 3rd party watch faces is still a little odd given they’re up to version 3 of the OS, and there are already native watch apps).
This one also checks all the boxes for fitness tracking, and I don’t think there’s much risk of them being acquired by Fitbit. But, the price! In black stainless steel (which is what my current Pebble is made of) one of these would set me back $600. With a silicone band. Add another $25 for a third party nylon band. (In reality, I’d probably opt for the black aluminium version at $400 with the nylon band, but still, that’s over double what I paid for the Pebble – in fact, I didn’t pay much more than that for all three Pebbles combined!).
The other big negative on this one for me is the short battery life. Charging daily would require thinking about when to charge it; overnight makes sense, unless you want to use the watch for sleep tracking too, which I have grown to like on the Pebble. In the office might work, but what about weekends when I am not sitting at my desk?
The Matrix Powerwatch is an outlier in that it doesn’t exist yet. It is still in the crowdfunding stage over on Indiegogo. Its bold claim is that it doesn’t need charging at all – instead it is powered using thermodynamics from your body heat. Take it off and it sleeps (retaining time etc of course); put it back on and it wakes up.
Given its early stage of development, I am not even considering it. It also isn’t clear what the feature set will be in terms of smartwatch capabilities (the photos all seem to be fitness oriented). But never having to charge it sounds great to me! I had a solar powered watch many years ago and loved that aspect of it. I wonder how good this thermodynamics concept is, but if it works, I think it is a great idea.
I love the increasing number of options in the space, and I still believe that once you have tried a smartwatch you will not go back (even if it is just for the ability to keep your phone in silent mode and filter the interruptions to just the things you really care about). The Apple option is clearly a strong player, but for a little longer at least I am going to stick with my Pebble I think. If it does get to the point that it really isn’t working, right now I think the only viable option for what I’m after is the Apple watch.
It occurred to me recently that when I have been doing things around the house that automate something, those activities have often been branded as me being lazy.
The Roomba was the first example of this, though at the time I just ignored the labeling. Having a device that can trundle around cleaning the floors for me without my needing to be pushing it is great. The argument was made that the Roomba was not as effective, nor as fast, as the Dyson in the closet. But that argument is false. On paper, the Roomba clearly does not have the suction power of the Dyson, but it can do the job unattended, meaning the floors are vacuumed more often than they would be with the Dyson. As for the speed, while it does take much longer for the Roomba to complete the job, it doesn’t expend any of my time at all. That makes it infinitely faster from my perspective.
Is it lazy though to push vacuuming onto a robot? I don’t think so. Especially not if I am spending the time I would have spent pushing the Dyson around doing something more valuable. It also impacts the overall quality of life for the family; one less chore that needs to be delegated.
Another one the household appliances that was seemingly tagged as making people lazy was the humble dishwasher (though, oddly, I have not heard the same complaint about the washing machine in our laundry room). For me, the dishwasher not only saves my time, it also typically does a better job at getting things clean, and saves on water. Once again, it can run when I am doing other things around the house, or it gives me some time to spend with the kids rather than standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes.
Just before Thanksgiving, I finally bit the bullet and upgraded the Insteon hub here in the house to the newer version that can integrate with Amazon’s fantastic Alexa gadget (something we’ve had in the house for a long time now and been using for music, weather, news, shopping lists and more). In addition to the Insteon lights, I hooked up the Nest and August integrations, so Alexa could control the house lights, the thermostats and our front door lock (she will only check the status or lock the door though, not unlock it).
My kids were hooked on the light control immediately, and our five year old has been showing everybody who visits Alexa’s newest trick. But is it laziness to ask Alexa to turn a light on or off rather than getting up and walking to the switch? Or to have her adjust the temperature on the thermostat instead on getting up and adjusting it manually? Of course, in both cases I could also just pull out the phone and use that, and in the case of the Nest, I can even make the change from my watch. I imagine those are also considered “lazy” options.
Is voice control ever useful? Sure! in the month or so we’ve had it, I’ve already used it a few times when I’ve had my hands full and needed a light turned on or off. I don’t think that is laziness; I see it more as improving efficiency.
Oddly, even though controlling the lights or thermostats remotely is laziness, I noticed that controlling the TV without getting up was not considered to be lazy. I wonder if the TV remote control was branded as laziness when it was first introduced?
Right now, I have the basic elements of a smart home, but I don’t think the home is really that smart. Sure, the August can tell the Nest when I go out. The Nest smoke detectors can tell the Nest thermostats when there is a carbon monoxide issue or a fire (and have the heating shut off). The thermostats also tell the smoke detectors when we are out so they can run self-tests without disturbing us.
But I am looking for more. I’d like the August to turn on the lights inside when I unlock the door at night. Or if the Roomba could disable the motion sensors on our home alarm system while it was cleaning, and re-enable them once it was done (so I could schedule the vacuuming to run while we are out without it resulting in the police breaking the door down to check for intruders).
Luckily, for this there are more and more options coming online, connecting the various APIs for each service. All I need now is some time to set them all up. And to keep replacing components in the home with ones that have APIs. I’d love to have our home Wi-Fi router be able to report when certain devices come and go, or trigger other activities based on who is at home, or who is arriving home. Our Apple Extreme cannot do this, but perhaps the next router I buy will have that capability (or something else I can connect to the house will).
Presence (for the future)
The next step I suspect will be to add beacon sensors in certain rooms so the house “knows” which room I am in based on either my phone, or my watch or some other wearable device that I choose to register as synonymous with me being present. Would it be lazy to have the kitchen lights automatically come on, and perhaps have a coffee start brewing when I come down at 6:30am to make lunch for our pre-schooler? Maybe Alexa would even know I walked in and greet me, or start my flash news briefing or a review of my calendar automatically too.
None of this is actually that new. I attended a lecture talking about “smart” badges probably 20+ years ago in the UK. But the age of Bluetooth wearables and smartphones makes a special badge unnecessary. And services like IFTTT make all of the interconnects simple too. We live in exciting times, as long as you think beyond automation being lazy of course!
Yesterday the rumour from the weekend about Fitbit acquiring Pebble were confirmed. Sadly though, the details made it clear that Fitbit didn’t really acquire Pebble at all. They acquired Pebble’s software platform and are offering some of the engineers jobs at Fitbit. The hardware will no longer exist.
That is very sad as the closest thing Fitbit has to a smartwatch is the Blaze, and to be frank it is perhaps the ugliest smartwatch on the market. As the product page makes clear, it is really a wrist-worn fitness monitor first, second and third (though, somewhat ironically for a fitness device, it isn’t water proof beyond “sweat, rain and splash proof”). Then somewhere, much lower in the priority list they added a watch and some basic smartwatch features (answer/reject phone calls and see notifications). No mention of custom watch faces. No mention of third party apps – my Pebble is configured with one button access to my Nest so I can monitor and adjust the temperature in the house from my wrist. And there any many, many more apps for the Pebble platform that allow people to do what they want to with their watch.
I think Pebble have said it before, but they set out to design a watch first. Something that would look good, and work well as a watch. My current Pebble Time Steel looks like a watch. I’m hoping that as well as the platform, some of the design from the Pebble platform will start to appear in future Fitbit, but it is sad to realize that the features supported by my watch will start to degrade over time (either because of changes to iOS, or, as BoingBoing suggests, because cloud support features get turned off by Fitbit).
Fitbit have missed an opportunity IMHO in not taking the hardware designs forward too. Most of the things that I think put Pebble ahead of everybody, including Apple, were hardware features (water resistance, long battery life, always on screen, simple button based UI that actually works). Sure, there were some software features too (the web based developer environment was fantastic, the new iOS app looks great too, and, of course, the choices of third party watchfaces were amazing).
Over the years they had their bad moments too. Support was always a bit of a crapshoot. Sometimes it was great, other times not so much. At the end of the day though, things normally improved (at least until the next iOS update broke them again – which is not Pebble’s fault at all).
Despite its shortcomings, it might actually be time to switch to an Apple watch. After several years of Pebble use (from the original Kickstarter edition, to a Pebble Steel, to a Pebble Time Steel, and I backed the PT2 as well), going without a smartwatch isn’t an option and not having it be waterproof and support basic apps is a non-starter too. So, sorry Fitbit, I’ll be sticking with my One for step tracking, but I don’t need a wrist-worn fitness tracker; I need a smartwatch.
Update November 7, 2016:
It looks like the Lono cloud service is back online. This was not a normal outage however as their domain completely disappeared from DNS. The bigger question of what they will be doing to ensure that the device works locally, even when the cloud is unavailable still deserves an answer (and I filed a support ticket this evening asking both about the outage & about plans for graceful degradation of service should the cloud component fail again).
A while ago now I backed a project on Kickstarter that was creating a more modern sprinkler controller. That actually wasn’t hard to imagine since the user interface of the one our home’s builder attached to wall consisted of a rotating switch, some buttons and an LCD display which could handle numbers & a few other preset things. Like something from the 1980s.
That project was Lono, and, like most Kickstarters, it delivered late & somewhat incomplete. But the hardware looked good, was dead simple to install & seemed to work. The software less so. Over time, things improved a bit though. I could access the controller, via the iPhone app, from anywhere. Scheduling was added, as was weather and a few other features. I don’t think I saw the truly smart scheduling that was promised, but it was delivering what I needed. Until today.
Today, the Lono died. Well. More specifically, the cloud service behind the Lono died. Now the attractive black & green box on the wall of my garage is essentially useless. Obviously, that is frustrating because I can no longer control my sprinklers, even from home when my phone & the Lono are on the same network. But it frustrates me on another level too. These IoT devices are clearly more powerful when connected to the cloud, but they should not be designed to be dependent on that cloud to do anything.
There is absolutely no reason why the Lono, discovering it could no longer reach its cloud based control center, couldn’t have dropped back to a LAN only mode. Whether the outage is caused by the company failing (which seems to be the case here), or other things (maybe an ISP failing, or being temporarily offline), there really is no excuse for these things to stop working based on their last known settings & reverting to more local control.
I’ve backed a number of different things on Kickstarter & Indiegogo. Typically, while they may have received firmware updates etc, only a couple were really dependent on a cloud based service & only Lono has failed. It does make me think I will be more wary of cloud backed IoT projects in future. Perhaps such projects will need to explain their plans for this scenario. At the very least, it would be good to see they’ve considered this & have some level of “disconnected” functionality baked in.
If they want to truly impress me, they should have hardware design, firmware & app software in an escrow service, with public (or at least customer) release triggered on company failure. Then, maybe, the community could rally around and perhaps continue support for these devices.