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IoT has an obsolescence problem

Jun 11, 20184 mins
Internet of ThingsSensors

The Internet of Things is still an emerging technology, but the $17,000 gold Apple Watch Edition shows it already has a problem with obsolescence. Can anything be done?

apple watch edition gold
Credit: Apple

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a long way from becoming a mature technology. From wearable devices to industrial sensors and consumer conveniences, IoT vendors and users are still trying to figure out what the technology does best as it grows into a $9 trillion market by 2020 (according to some estimates).

And yet, IoT is somehow already faced with a huge and growing problem of obsolescence. The problem, ironically, lies in the “things” themselves.

Apple Watch: A premature antique

Don’t believe me? Consider the solid gold Apple Watch Edition, launched in 2015 and sold for $10,000 to as much as $17,000 a pop. A traditional watch at that price point would be expected to last decades, perhaps even generations as it turns into a family heirloom. But with the announcement of Apple Watch OS 5 at the company’s World Wide Developers Conference this week, the original version of these fancy timepieces can no longer keep up. They simply won’t run the latest version of the operating system due out this fall, and they won’t have the features of brand-new Apple Watches that cost a tiny fraction of that amount.

This is not some surprising new development. Among other shocked observers at the time, even I asked, “Why spend $10,000 on an Apple Watch that will be obsolete in 2 years?” Well, perhaps my post was a bit aggressive … the Edition didn’t turn into a “premature antique” for three years, not two!

Some things are hard to replace

If you think about it, this is a relatively simple-to-solve instance of IoT obsolescence. The more common, and much harder to deal with problem, is IoT devices located in places that can’t easily be reached. Last fall, for example, I wrote about the (voluntary) recall of almost half a million St. Jude Medical IoT devices due to a risk of hacking.

No big deal, right? Devices get recalled for security fixes all the time. Unfortunately, in this case, the devices involved were pacemakers installed not in some easy-access equipment rack, but in patients’ chests. Swapping them out would be a very big deal (fortunately, as of publication of the post, none of the pacemakers had actually been compromised).

The issue goes much further than watches and pacemakers. Smart cars have IoT systems that will become obsolete long before the vehicles in which they’re installed reach the end of their useful lives (sort of like aging 8-track players still riding around in the dashboards of cars from the 1980s).

And it gets worse. For example, many industrial sensors essential to delivering the benefits of IoT are located in hard-to-reach spots where replacement or upgrades would be difficult, expensive, or hazardous. Sure, remote software upgrades can help alleviate the problem in many cases, but sometimes you need to fix or replace the thing itself.

A modular solution

There is a solution for some of these issues. Back in 2015, I suggested that Apple a offer “modular, replaceable guts” for its Apple Watch Edition. Allowing users to replace the functional parts of the device, which everyone knew would need to be updated periodically, would have allowed them to keep using the super-expensive gold case, engineering an end run around the inevitable obsolescence of this very expensive internet “thing.”

Of course, that would likely have made the Watch even bulkier and might have affected performance in a variety of ways. On the other hand, they might not be turning obsolete in a few months. That approach won’t solve all of IoT’s obsolescence issues, but it’s a start. More to the point, perhaps, IoT vendors and buyers need to consider the useful life of the devices, as well as what will happen when (not if) they break or can no longer keep up with technology advancements.

Sure, that might add some cost and clunkiness. But it has to be done. IoT is too new and too promising to become prematurely obsolete.


Fredric Paul is Editor in Chief for New Relic, Inc., and has held senior editorial positions at ReadWrite, InformationWeek, CNET, PCWorld and other publications. His opinions are his own.