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Google's Nest Proves the Internet of Things Still Has a Long Way to Go

By Chris Neiger – Jan 19, 2016 at 10:30AM

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A recent bug in the Nest thermostat's software reminds us how fragile the Internet of Things can be.

Image source: Nest.

Imagine you wake up in your bed to a freezing cold house. You know you set the thermostat to the right temperature the night before, so something must be wrong. You stumble out of bed and into the hallway to look at the thermostat. It's off -- and it won't turn back on.

That was the scenario for some Nest thermostat owners (the company owned by Alphabet's (GOOG -1.24%) (GOOGL -1.02%) Google) after a software updated inadvertently added a bug to thermostat's system, causing the batteries to drain and the device to turn off.

In the scheme of Internet-connected devices, this wasn't a disaster. Nest identified the problem relatively quickly and provided steps for users to reboot their devices, and for those who couldn't figure it out, Nest offered to send an electrician to their home. Rebooting the device was inconvenient for users, but that's about all. 

The Nest thermostat snafu points a potentially larger problem of bringing formerly unconnected things online. Companies have to earn the trust of users in order for them to buy their products, but in the Internet of Things (where nearly everything is connected all of the time), they'll have to keep that trust by successfully ensuring those devices run properly.

Building trust 
This wasn't the first problem Nest has had, either. Back in 2014, the Nest smoke and carbon monoxide alarm, Protect, had to have a software update because of over-sensitive sensors that made turning the device off (through hand gestures) too easy. The company pulled devices off of the shelves and reintroduced the product after the fix. 

Image source: Nest.

While Nest may be able to get away with a few problems with its devices, it's not helping to build consumer trust for home automation or the Internet of Things. A recent survey by Accenture of 28,000 people across 28 countries found that half of respondents said they'd stay away from the Internet of Things because of privacy and security issues.

As Intel's former worldwide chief technology officer for security, Michael Fey, said back in 2014, "Security needs to be built in as the foundation of the Internet of Things. Any disruption to these IP connected devices can cause damage to the business and our daily lives. We need to have foresight into what is coming so we can prevent against threats and securely manage these devices."

Of course, Nest didn't have a security problem. But when a device that's supposed to control the heat can't even keep itself turned on, users may be less inclined to trust the company that makes it with their privacy and security. 

That could eventually stifle IoT adopt rates for other companies. With the IoT market expected to reach $7 trillion by 2020, there's too much at stake for companies not to focus on how users will perceive small software glitches. If Google wants to eventually have us hand over our trust to them to drive us around town without us touching the steering wheel, it'll need to first learn how to make a thermostat that can consistently keep the heat on in our homes. 

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Chris Neiger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares) and Alphabet (C shares). The Motley Fool recommends Intel. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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