When Cloud Based IoT Dies

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.

Cloud Dependency

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.

Kickstarter 

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. 

TriNet Experiences

It has been just over a year now that we have had TriNet as our HR service at work, and my opinion of them gets worse & worse with each interaction. There are definitely a few bright points, but still my overall advice for any small company thinking about using them would be simply, don’t. That is from an employee perspective of course, but hopefully when choosing something like this the employee experience is an important element too.

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Stanford Children’s MyChart

In 2013 our pediatrician’s practice was acquired by Stanford Children’s Health which, at the time, seemed to be a positive move. The pediatricians at the hospital where both our kids were born was part of the same group and they were great.

Indeed, the actual doctor part hasn’t really changed beyond the introduction of computerized records (believe it or not they were still using paper records until around a year ago). What did change though was how we pay the bills. Initially, there was some confusion as the billing was moved from the old system over, which, while not really acceptable, is at least understandable as a temporary problem.

Finally though, the bills were being sent out as Stanford Children’s Health bills, and to pay them online we need to login to their MyChart system – something that appears to have been licensed from Epic Software. Quite why this is necessary I don’t understand; all the other medical bills I’ve ever paid allowed me to simply go to a payment portal, enter the details of the bill and pay it without needing an account. But, SCH requires an account at MyChart. And that is where the confusion starts.

Account Holder

Obviously, the patients in this case are not paying the bills, so the account needs to be created in an adult’s name, and associated with the patient. The first to receive a bill under the new system was my daughter, following a visit when my wife took her. But I pay the bills. When the account was created, I entered the magic code from the bill, and my email address. But somehow the record had been created with my wife’s name on it, so now the account is in her name, with my email address. Unfazed, I just paid the bill and left it; it doesn’t really matter much.

Next to visit was my son, so now I have a bill for him. And here is where MyChart falls apart. It would seem that nobody at Epic ever considered the possibility that a family might have more than one child. I can’t create a new account for him because my email address is already associated with an account (I guess I could use a different email address, but I don’t want to deal with two accounts for this either). And I can’t see his bill on the existing account because that account is associated with a different patient (my daughter). And there is no way for me to link him to the existing account. Which means there is no way to pay the bill online. Total failure!

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Crowd Funding Update

Back in August of last year I wrote an update on the status of the projects I have backed on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. Eight months on, only one of the projects still ongoing has delivered: Parashoot. Lima and Lono are still promising to ship soon.

I also have a couple of projects not on either of the two platforms: Coin (which finally delivered this week, very late), and Nymi, a biometric authentication project (still to deliver, but different in that they won’t take the money until they ship, so really this is pre-ordering more than crowd funding).

In the meantime I have backed a few more projects:

The Egg

A personal web server gadget. This one was a little personal since I know one of the founders, but I’ve seen one of their early units and the project has some appealing features too, not least of which is the ability to share photos with friends & family without having to upload them to a public web service.

Expected delivery: September 2015

Pebble Time

This will be my third Pebble, and I upgraded the pledge to switch to the steel variant once they announced it. Not much more to say about this one.

Expected delivery: July 2015

Titanium Pens

A set of three (because I couldn’t decide on the finish I preferred & the set was a bargain compared to one or two pens). And, yes, these pens are going to ship without a refill. But they look gorgeous, and the guy behind the project already sells lots of titanium products directly from his site and clearly has a passion for this pen project. It has been incredibly over subscribed though – about 3600% more than the goal.

Expected delivery: July 2015

The Leaders Guide by Eric Ries

A new book project from Eric Ries (of lean startup fame) with lots of unlocked extras. 

Expected delivery: October 2015

Happy Earth Day

Oh, and happy Earth Day as well. Got carried away with my aquarium photos and completely forgot to mention that I’ve started posting more articles to my Vertography Blog – a blog for all things green. Check it out, and add it to your RSS reader, if you’re still doing that, or follow @vertography on Twitter. I’ll see about a Facebook page soon as well.

Location Based App Survey

You Are HereDo you use any of the current location based services? Things like Foursquare, Gowalla, Facebook Places or even Yelp’s check in option? Or, perhaps you don’t use them because you don’t like something about them? If you have a spare couple of minutes, we’d really appreciate it if you could take our 7 question survey asking about these applications / services.

Once we have enough answers in the survey to make it meaningful, we’ll publish the results here and/or on the ourLivez site.

Newspapers Are Killing Themselves

Yesterday saw the removal of all of my iNewz apps from the Apple app store. Not something I really wanted to do, but something that was forced on me by the very people who stood to benefit the most from the apps: the news organizations who publish the news.

Yesterday was also the day that another RSS based news app, Pulse, was removed from the store despite being praised & shown on stage at WWDC by Steve Jobs. Why? Because the New York Times complained that the app contained the URL for their RSS feed. Quoting from the letter Apple received from the Times:

I note that the app is delivered with the NYTimes.com RSS feed preloaded, which is prominently featured in the screen shots used to sell the app on iTunes.

The same argument was made by Apple to me for the recent rejection of an update to iNewz (and a few more news feeds were cited as problematic too).

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Twitter xAuth – The Missing Docs

The recent decision by Twitter to turn off support for Basic Auth soon means a lot of Twitter apps are now racing to implement either full OAuth support, or the cut down xAuth designed for non-web apps. The iNewz apps fall into this last category, and an initial look at the work involved made it seem as though switching from basic auth to xAuth would be pretty straightforward. Sadly, and mostly because of poor documentation and what I consider bugs in the Twitter API implementation of OAuth, this took far longer than it should have done. Hopefully this blog post will help others looking to make this switch by providing a more complete, step-by-step description of the xAuth process. It may also help those trying to make full OAuth work, but I haven’t tried that yet.

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Akamai Down

Akamai DownParts of Akamai were down for about an hour tonight knocking several sites off the net essentially for some of us.

Here in Alameda, I was unable to get to Yahoo, Flickr, E*Trade or Apple because they all point at the local Akamai leaf node (a248.e.akamai.net) which was not responding at all. I’m sure many other sites that depend on the Akamai service to improve their performance and reliability were also affected. Looks like Akamai is not very fault tolerant.

Even Akamai’s own home page was inaccessible (as shown in the screen shot).

Flickr Oddities Today

Seems like there is something going on with those little JavaScript-enabled buttons over the top of images at Flickr today. I’ve had a number of times when they didn’t do anything, and then just now when I went to post the tree frogs photo to the blog, I got the strange title in the drop down instead of the normal one.