For the last couple of years, as Google's self-driving cars have racked up increasing numbers of safely driven miles on the public roads, people have wondered why Google was interested. What do cars have to do with search or advertising?
I always saw it as a logical extension into the suburban American lifestyle that casts the car as a gateway to the physical world. More recently, it's become clearer - from, for example, the research I did for a piece on car hacking last year for Infosecurity magazine - that Google had already understood something that the rest of us have been slower to grasp. Namely: modern cars are computers on wheels. In fact, modern cars are multiple computers on wheels, anywhere from ten to as many as 70 for a luxury car. The people commuting in these things are trapped in traffic and bored for as long as it takes them to travel between home and work. Small wonder that car manufacturers are beginning to think like TV manufacturers and mobile network operators: apps are golden, baby!
Buying Nest Labs, maker of the most fashionable "smart" thermostat, even for as exaggerated a sum as $3.2 billion (what's a few extra zeroes?), seems like, again, Google seeing a chance to mediate a relationship that until now has been solely between householders and their retail suppliers. Google's stated mission is to organize all the world's information; Nest's thermostat brings that mission into the realm of information that never existed until now. We usually talk about the security issues surrounding such changes of use, but just as important is the power of even seemingly small, by themselves insignificant, bits of data, such as the ons and offs of a burglar alarm. Thermostat data is differently revealing: not the pattern of when and for how long people are at home or away, but charting movements around the house that might give clues about who wants what when.
Personally, Nest's thermostat isn't something I covet. My general experience is that supposedly "smart" systems guess wrong about my intentions. Which is fine with me: guessing accurately would be creepy enough to encourage someone as perverse as I am to deliberately go some other way, even if it's uncomfortable, just to prove a point. I see, however, that I'm not alone. Frankly, a programmable thermostat seems a simpler and more effective way to get the temperature in a given room is into the desired range.
As that article adds, there's the issue of upgrades and patches, which I'm hearing more and more about these days. It's one thing to find that Firefox has updated itself overnight and in the process killed your most important add-on doesn't work, quite another to do without heat during a polar vortex because someone a bit reckless authorized the roll-out of an upgrade without sufficient testing or provisions for fallback.
Many people don't patch or update their computer systems out of inertia. A fair number, though, don't do it - or do it only cautiously, days late, after checking the update in the complaints forums - because they fear that either the upgrade will fail or that it will remove or change some constantly used feature in unacceptable ways. Worse is the mismatch between the expectation in the computer world, where gadgets are replaced every time someone comes up with a new twist, and the rest of the world, where major purchases like refrigerators and cars are expected to last a decade or two, and something like a thermostat is expected to remain in place until the heating system is overhauled. It's considerations like this that led Peter Bright at Ars Technica to write about the Internet of unmaintained, insecure, and dangerously hackable things.
There's been lots of speculation about just what Google wants Nest for: patents perhaps. Here's my thought.
Nest Labs co-founder Tony Fadell likes to talk about reinventing unloved but important household gadgets (PDF), but, as Quentin Hardy points out in the New York Times, Nest's real technology isn't its Apple-cheeked designs but "communications, algorithms, sensors and user experience, running over a network to the cloud". Now, who does that sound like?
Then think about the way technology changes, its own wonders to disrupt. There have been visions of smart homes for decades, from IBM to Microsoft (to name two), just as there are myriad data brokers that maintain profiles on all of us. But Google is in the unique position of being able to link what it already knows from how we behave online to what we do with our mobile phones (via online behavioral patterns), and link from those phones - and then cars - to where we live and the very personal choices we make about what used to be our castles. If we buy into this, the result will be a classic case of leveraging dominance in one market to create a monopoly in another. This could be the antitrust case of 2024. And all built by a race of techies so primitive that they still think cloud computing is a pretty neat idea.
Wendy M. Grossman Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.