Why Nest’s Smoke Detector Fail Is Actually A Win For Everyone

ReadWriteHome is an ongoing series exploring the implications of living in connected homes.

Nest Labs’ sudden decision Thursday to halt sales of its smart smoke and carbon monoxide detectors surprised users and drew mixed reactions. But what looks at first glance like a black eye was also the sharpest thing the company could have done.

CEO Tony Fadell posted an online notice to consumers warning them that its Nest Protect smoke detectors aren’t actually that smart after all. The company discovered a bug in its algorithm for the Nest Wave gesture, a convenience feature designed to let people disable their alarms by waving their hand. The glitch—which only affects the smoke detector, not the company’s flagship Nest thermostat—makes it possible for users to accidentally turn off the alarm, raising safety concerns. 

See also: Nest Wants To Be The Hub Of The Connected Home

Press reaction has been harsh. The Verge called it “a big setback.” The Next Web lauded the newly Google-owned company for “handling the issue admirably,” though in the same sentence, it also said the incident was an “awkward smudge on the company’s record….”

Such brickbats miss the point. Nest’s commitment to disclosure and proactive fixes (at least this time around) deserves praise, particularly if it can help set a standard for other Internet of Things vendors as smart gadgets proliferate in the real world.

What Nest Did

Nest’s FAQ on the issue states plainly that no actual customers have reported the glitch; the issue was discovered in lab tests only. To minimize the risk of users randomly disabling their alarms, the company is issuing a software update that disables Nest Wave pending a fix; it’s also taken the extra precaution of halting sales and offering refunds to any customer who requests one.

These efforts stop short of a full-blown product recall, but Nest is clearly taking this matter seriously, no strong-arming required. Nest came out on its own to fess up about the problems. 

Tech products are prone to bugs and other unexpected issues. It’s a fact of modern life. And users often have to complain—at times loudly and vigorously—just to get a response from the company responsible. We do this when our phones don’t work the way they should, and suffer through nonsense like “you’re just holding it the wrong way.” Or when companies’ mapping cars wind up hoovering up our Wi-Fi data. Or when smart home products aren’t locked down enough to guard against hacking.

Why That Matters

All of these irritations have actually happened. Examples like the last one, though, are particularly disconcerting because they can actually put people at risk in their own homes.

See also: Belkin WeMo Home Automation Products Are Not Safe, Researchers Say

A couple of months ago, Belkin drew fire for vulnerabilities in its WeMo line of smart home products. The main issue involved security holes and other weaknesses, including weak encryption and insecure authentication. But Belkin made things much worse by allegedly choosing to ignore them once outside researchers informed it of the vulnerabilities. 

That’s what officials at IOActive, the security firm that found the problems, told me. The security warning prompted a federally funded security agency to issue an advisory urging customers to immediately disconnect their WeMo devices.

Having problems is never good. But ignoring them is even worse.

Nest did the right thing in a difficult situation. And knowing the company cares about the integrity of its product—so much so that it’s willing to risk looking bad to resolve problems—should give it more credibility, not less. Because no product or service is flawless. And if you can’t expect perfection, at the very least, you want to know that the companies you trust to keep you safe and secure take the responsibility seriously. 

Perhaps co-founders Fadell and Matt Rogers learned some things from their time at Apple. They certainly did after the Nest thermostat experienced reboots and battery problems last winter. Hopefully they’ll stay the course now as they begin life at Google

Feature image courtesy of Nest.

Updated to acknowledge previous issues with Nest’s other product, the learning thermostat. 

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