This past Saturday, one in four people who had come to rely on Wink as the brains behind their smart home set-up found their connected devices suddenly lobotomized. Devices connected to the Wink Hub couldn’t access the internet, meaning that they could no longer be controlled via app, and wouldn’t execute their pre-programmed rituals. Simply put, nothing worked.
In an emailed statement, Wink confirmed that the cause of the outage was a “misconfiguration” of a security measure it had implemented previously. Several Wink Hub units couldn’t be fixed remotely, and those users will either have to try to repair their own using Wink-provided instructions, or mail them in for a replacement. Around 10 percent of Wink users are still without service, and the Hub has been pulled from shelves until further notice.
The smart home of the future won’t be immune from the testiness that plagues any technology.
In the great ranking of life’s annoyances, not being able to adjust the basement lighting with your smartphone comes in somewhere just below a particularly nasty hangnail, especially for those of whom the problem was fixed quickly. But Wink’s weekend failure reminds us that the smart home of the future won’t be immune from the testiness that plagues any technology. In fact, those common, unavoidable flailings will be even more frustrating.
Nearly a year ago, Mat Honan wrote The Nightmare on Connected Home Street, a glimpse at the inevitable dystopia caused by hooking up our households and everything within them to the internet sewage pipe. We’re not nearly at the full-fledged horror stage, but incidents like the weekend Wink stink are the foundation on which our frustrating smart home future will be built.
The specific Wink security certificate issue is an aberration; lesson learned, moving on. But every tech company runs into software problems; even Apple managed to kill iPhone data connections in iOS 8.0.1 last fall. Which is why, according to Forrester Research smart home analyst Frank Gillett, something like this is bound to happen again, be it to Wink or any other smart home provider.
“It’s human error, and human error is never going to go away,” says Gillett. “You can try to manage it and reduce it, but fundamentally humans make mistakes.”
That may sound like an obvious truth; everything breaks sometimes. What’s less obvious is the degree of annoyance those breakdowns can cause. Your computer’s Wi-Fi being wonky after an OS update has isolated effects. Your digital door lock freezing up, less so. Unless, that is, you’re also carrying your physical key with you, the necessity of which brings into question how useful your “smart” solution is in the first place.
“Redundancy is built into the majority of smart home systems,” explains IHS smart home analyst Tim Hewitt. Frankly, that’s the saving grace of the Wink outage; when a system with a single point of failure, like Wink, goes down, the worst that happens is you have to go back to flicking your light switch off and on like a normal person.
That’s not to dismiss how frustrating smart home technical issues can be; when you pay for something to work, you expect it to. Moreover, when you pay for something specifically to reduce friction from your life and it ends up adding more, you feel the annoyance that much more keenly.
It also raises the question of what exactly we hope to get out of our smart homes in the first place. “The point is not to replace mechanical things with digital things, but that can do either,” says Gillett. Broader infrastructural changes may some day allow for utility beyond minor conveniences, but Gillett thinks we’re unlikely to see a transformation that dramatic within the next several decade.
Until then, we’ll just continue this smart home see-saw between small daily efficiencies and sporadic but acute aggravations. Human-error collapses like Wink’s will be joined by security breaches of varying intensity. Previously unconsidered side-effects—like the Nest Protect smoke detector’s Wave feature, which potentially turned off alarms in the middle of a fire and prompted a recall—will make some seemingly revolutionary devices more trouble than they’re worth.
Wink’s gaffe only affected a small number of people, and most of them knew the stakes of early adoption. But it’s a reminder that smart home tech is still tech, and that tech is never perfect, a warning that entrusting our locks and our lights and our coffee makers to the internet will have its consequences. Connected Home Street may ever fully be a nightmare, but it’s already a migraine.