April 05, 2016

Another Trust Problem for Google: Bricking Devices in People's Homes

Google has long had a reputation of terminating -- sometimes on very short notice -- services on which users depend. Sometimes the number of users affected are small relative to Google's enormous user community, but still large in absolute terms.

But in some situations, those numbers are less important that the damage done to Google's overall reputation (and now by extension to Google's parent company Alphabet).

Such is the case currently with word that on just a couple of months notice, Alphabet is dropping support of home automation products from Revolv -- a firm that Alphabet acquired less than two years ago. Reportedly this was announced on a website, without any proactive notification to existing users who have purchased these devices.

Withdrawal of support from these products doesn't only mean that you don't get updates in the future -- it apparently means that these devices will stop working entirely and become useless (and not particularly inexpensive) chunks of garbage as a result.

It could be argued that Alphabet has operated Revolv at arm's length, and that it's unfair to blame Alphabet (and certainly not Google) for this situation.

This argument just doesn't wash.

Alphabet is intrinsically linked with Google in the public mind, in a manner unlike most parent firms that own various subsidiaries.

Just as positive or negative experiences with a single Google service tend to color users' perceptions of Google as a whole, the same is true for Alphabet and its other subsidiaries as well. This is why the headlines about this saga have tended to reference Google. Technically this wasn't an action by Google, but as a practical matter the damage done to user trust by the Revolv situation impacts Alphabet broadly and Google -- as Alphabet's flagship firm -- dramatically as well.

None of this is to suggest that Alphabet/Google should be required to support every product or service indefinitely. But details of what happens when support is withdrawn (in this case, apparently rendering physical products useless), the time frame of notifications regarding this change (a couple of months is ridiculously short), and the presence of -- or lack of -- proactive notification of affected users -- all of this matters enormously.

Leaving aside for now the complexities of the DMCA and the details of the Terms of Service related to these products, Alphabet's actions in this case simply seem fundamentally unfair to -- and uncaring toward -- Revolve customers. When Alphabet purchased Revolv, they became the custodian of those products and became responsible for those users.

Alphabet has not handled this well, and the result is damaging not only to Revolv users, but also more broadly to Alphabet's and Google's brands.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so -- my opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Posted by Lauren at April 5, 2016 09:15 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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