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The Internet of Sh*t - the opinions of a tech afficionado

By Patrick Pilcher
Wed 24 Aug 2016
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Writing about gadgets sometimes means I'm more than a little sceptical. More often than not, reviewing gear involves a considerable amount of cynicism too.

This comes from sifting through several tonnes of PR bullshittery on a daily basis.  The sheer amount of it bandied about the tech sector is truly staggering.

The number one bullshit magnet of the moment is the “Internet of Things”. The “Cloud” runs in at a close second.

Faced with flat PC sales and a slowing smartphone market, tech companies are on the lookout for the next big thing.

The sheer earning potential of the Internet of Things and/or the Cloud sees many tech companies behaving with the scruples of a dog on a croquet lawn.

It isn’t hard to see why. Take any normal household appliance or PC peripheral. Make it network connectable. Throw in an Android or iOS app that lets punters perform a few other cool tricks.  Add in a Cloud service and charge an ongoing monthly fee for “premium Cloud services”. The market is huge and there’s pot loads of money to be had out there.

According to the hype, the Internet of Things will revolutionise our lives. It'll solve a host of day-to-day issues and even some of the big problems facing the world. It’s a compelling argument and it’s hard not to get caught up in its hype and excitement.

Trouble is that the reality of the Internet of Things is more akin to an Internet of Shit.

This sounds harsh, I know. But the unfortunate reality is that many homes are packed with gadgets that have not delivered on the Internet of Things hype.

Instead of a Jetsons like tech-topia, many of us have a growing collection of gadgets gathering dust because they don’t work, sometimes work, or create more problems than they solve when they do decide to work.

Take my home for example. I have a state of the art home security system. When armed, it floods me with false alerts. Because of this, it sits disconnected. When I fire it up, logging into its cloud service is a frustrating and complex waste of time. I’ve given up.

Another is my netcam. It worked great when I first got it. It was a neat way of checking in on things when away from home. At least that was until its most recent firmware update. Now it just displays a still image. 

I notified a support rep of my netcam woes, but immediately felt sorry for him. I imagined he's stuck in a call centre battery farm at an undisclosed third world location. He's also more likely than not being paid well below what we'd call minimum wages. There’s little wonder he was so disinterested in fixing my technical issues.

Then there’s my smart light switches. I got these because being able to turn lights on or off with my smartphone sounded oh so cool. A few years later, only one of the switches still connects to my phone. Its front faceplate falls off when I switch it on the old fashioned way, making it an electrical hazard. 

I’m still waiting for the bored tech support guy to come back to me with the answers for that one too. Welcome to my Internet of Shit.

Also of concern is security. IT security experts have long been critical of the woeful state of security with the Internet of Things. 

As we fill our homes with connected gadgets, the software driving them is often little more than an afterthought. Many apps are riddled with un-patched security holes. These could see passwords or other information being scooped up by hackers. Stories of hijacked netcams and other gear are becoming an increasingly commonplace part of our daily news fix.

If the left hand of the Internet of Shit is security issues, then the right has to be privacy. One of the more popular gadgets with Internet connectivity is the smart TV. Reports surfaced a few years back of voice activated smart TVs recording viewer conversations and sharing viewing preferences with undisclosed third parties. Imagine what an IT security audit of the Internet of Shit would turn up in Kiwi homes?

These issues happen because we allow them to. It isn’t that we're too trusting or even that we're gullible. It is usually because when confronted with a legalese filled licensing agreement in an unreadable 4 point font, we hit the "agree" button instead of attempting to decipher it. 

Reading page after page of legal jargon is something most of us don't want to do when our other option involves powering up a shiny new connected appliance. This isn’t rocket science. Shiny gadget VS four pages of legal speak readable using an electron microscope? Which would you choose? Me? I’m for about powering up the gadget.

This is one of the shadier sides of the Internet of Shit. Manufacturers know that almost no-one reads their licensing agreements. Because of this, they can hide some particularly onerous terms and conditions in them. I wonder how many consumers would buy a widgetonatorX from Corporate Shits “R” us if they knew that by agreeing to the legal stuff, the kidneys of their first born now belong to the corporation?

So is there anything us consumers can do about the appalling state of the Internet of Shit? Here’s seven tips that may help.

1)    Know your rights. New Zealand has strong privacy and consumer protection laws. Knowing these can save you a ton of frustration.

2)    Research before buying. Checking support forums and googling reviews for the gadget you're looking to buy might save you a lot of grief later on. Not all gadgets are equal, so finding out which has the best reliability and support can make a huge difference.

3)    Don’t cheap out. When it comes to gadgets, the old maxim, "ya gets whats ya pays for" definitely applies. Sure you may be able to buy a cheaper version of the widget, but there’s usually some very good reasons why it is cheaper. Reliability and after sales support are the biggies here.

4)    Upgrade your router. As our homes fill up with more connected widgets, an increasing amount of strain is placed on our WiFi routers. Most were only ever intended for light work. Expecting their radios, network interface, memory and processors to handle a house load of connected devices can be a bit of an ask. It is little wonder most crash. Some manufacturers are working to remedy this by making routers with enough raw horsepower to handle an increased load. I switched to the more heavy duty Linksys AC2600 Max-Stream MU-Mimo router. Since then, resets and outages have lessened significantly. 

5)    Hold off firmware upgrades. Some manufacturers will continue to support your widget with firmware updates. These usually fix security and performance issues. They're generally a good thing. Sometimes however, they can cripple your widget or stop it from working altogether. Again, check the support forums for your hardware and see if large numbers of users report issues. If so, hold off upgrading until a fix gets issued.

6)    Attempt to decipher the Legalese. Spend some Google time before buying to see if anyone has decoded the license agreement for the widget you’re buying. Although the likelihood of manufacturers opting for a plain English licensing agreement is almost zero, never under estimate the power of customers voting with their wallets.

7)    Be vocal. As well as reading reviews before you buy, share your experiences in gadget forums. This helps others thinking of purchasing make an informed buying decision. It’ll also keep manufacturers honest.

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