Philips Says: No Internet Of Things For You!

The 900-pound gorilla in the corner of the Internet of Things (IoT) hype that everyone is trying to ignore is interoperability. In the Internet of Internets (IoI) everything works on a few standards that are widely accepted: IP and HTML. The discrepancies are in the details and the standards wars are in the past. Websites are largely interoperable. Not so in the wild-west ethos of the IoT.

Philips makes a line of ZigBee-enabled RGB lightbulbs that took the enthusiast community by storm. And initially, Philips was very friendly to other devices — it makes a ZigBee-to-WiFi bridge that would let you control all of your ZigBee-based lights, regardless of their manufacturer, from your phone. Until now.

Philips has just rolled out a “Friends of Hue” certification process, and has since pushed out a firmware update where their Hue bridges stop interoperating with non-certified devices. You can read Philips’ version of the story here.

Philips Locks Out 3rd Party ZigBee Hardware

The hub shown on the right is what's being locked down.
The hub shown on the right is what’s being locked down.

The short version is that, ZigBee standards be damned, your future non-Philips lights won’t be allowed to associate with the Philips bridge. Your GE and Osram bulbs aren’t Friends of Hue. DIY RGB strips in your lighting mix? Not Friends of Hue. In fact, you won’t be surprised to know who the “Friends of Hue” are: other Philips products, and Apple. That’s it. If you were used to running a mixed lighting system, those days are over. If you’re not on the friends list, you are an Enemy of Hue.

Their claim is that third party products may display buggy behavior on a Philips network, and that this loads up their customer-response hotlines and makes people think that Philips is responsible. Of course, they could simply tell people to disable the “other” devices and see how it works, putting the blame where it belongs. Or they could open up a “developer mode” that made it clear that the user was doing something “innovative”. But neither of these strategies prevent consumers from buying other firms’ bulbs, which cost only 30-50% of Philips’ Hue line.

While Philips is very careful to not couch it as such, the Friends of Hue program really looks like an attempt to shut out their competitors; Philips got an early lead in the RGB LED game and has a large share of the market. As they say themselves in their own press release “Today these 3rd party bulbs represent a minimal fraction of the total product connected to our bridges so the percentage of our users affected is minimal.” And they’d like to keep it that way, even though the people they’re hurting are probably their most vocal and dedicated customers.

Who owns the IoT?

This Techdirt response to the situation is positively apoplectic, and there’s been the predictable flood of tirades in the comments on Slashdot. [Joel Ward], who in January was celebrating the ability to afford enough colored lights to appease his son is not so happy anymore.

And while we, with our manual light switches, laugh comfortably at the first-world problems of Hue consumers, we have to ask ourselves whether we’re next. Today they come for our RGB lightbulbs, but tomorrow it might be our networked toasters. A chilling thought!

Snark aside, the IoT brings two of the saddest realities of the software world into your home appliances: Where there’s code, there’s vulnerabilities, and when you can’t control the code yourself you aren’t really in control. You may own the lightbulb, but you’re merely licensing the firmware that runs it. The manufacturer can change the rules of the game, or go out of the product line entirely, and you’re high and dry. What can you do? Pull out your JTAG debugger.

Of course it’s insane to suggest that everyone needs to become an embedded-device firmware hacker just to keep their fridge running. As we’ve written before, we need to come up with some solution that puts a little more control in the hands of the ostensible owners of the devices, while at the same time keeping the baddies out. We suggest a press-to-revert-firmware button, for instance. When Philips pushes a non-consumer-friendly upgrade, you could vote with your fingertips — but then you’d miss out on bug fixes as well. Maybe it’s better to just give in an learn to love Windows 10.

There are no easy solutions and no perfect software. The industry is still young and we’ll see a lot of companies staking out their turf as with any new technology. It seems to us that IoT devices leave consumers with even less choice and control than in the past, because they are driven by firmware that’s supposed to be invisible. It’s just a lightbulb, right?

What do you think? Any ideas about how to put the power back in the hands of the “owner” of the device without everyone’s refrigerators becoming botnet zombies? Let us know in the comments.

Thanks [djxfade] for the tip!

Edit: Shortly after we ran this piece, Philips backed down:

“We underestimated the impact this would have upon the small number of our customers who currently use uncertified lights from other brands in the Philips Hue system. We have decided to continue to enable our customers who wish to integrate these uncertified products within their Philips Hue system.”

Amazon Echo Becomes A Better Home Automation Appliance

There’s a bright future ahead of us, filled with intelligent computerized assistants that will listen to everything we say and do our bidding. It’ll be like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but without unverified mission-critical software and a bunch of killing. Until then, we have a few Amazon Echo hacks that tease out a reasonably capable home automation system without a proper API.

This build was inspired by an earlier project that polled the to do list looking for key phrases. Saying, “Alexa, to do, lights on” would turn on an Internet-connected light bulb. Saying, “Alexa, to do, call home” would call a phone number set up with the ‘home’ keyword.

[Glen] has improved that earlier setup somewhat, mostly by getting rid of the requirement to say, ‘to do.’ The Git for the project still shows it’s exploiting the Amazon to do list, but this is a much cleaner build that should end up having a lot more possibilities.

So far, [Glen], or rather, Alexa, can control the temperature of the house through a Nest thermostat, the lighting of a room with a Phillips Hue light bulb, and other random tasks like playing an audio file through the speakers. Not bad, and something that really demonstrates the potential of a smart, connected home.

Skyscraper Tetris Lets The City Know How Good Or Bad You Are

If you’ve clocked one-too-many hours at Tetris, it might be time to show the world your skills on this skyscraper-sized display on the Shell Centre in London. [Benjamin], [Tom], and their “army of volunteers” took to the Shell building and assembled their super-screen from a collection of 182 networked wireless lightbulbs, some tracing paper, and mylar to create a playable interface from the Jubilee Gardens below.

[Benjamin] doesn’t deliver many of the technical details on his post, but he does give us an overview. He achieves full wireless coverage of all floors by spacing out 14 TP-Link WR702n routers, each running the same version of OpenWRT. This interface wasn’t [Benjamin’s] first choice, as he would’ve preferred to tap into the building’s existing wireless network; unfortunately, he was left without support from the building’s network team. Equipped with a large donation of wireless bulbs controlled by a central bridge, [Benjamin’s] Python-adaptation of Tetris can refresh the building about about 1-to-2 frames per second. Given his description of the bulb interface, we suspect he’s using the all-too-familiar Philips Hue smart lightbulbs to illuminate the building.

In case you haven’t heard of Faraday’s Christmas Lectures, they’re the UK’s nationally broadcasted “science special” featured at the end of the year and founded in 1825 by [Michael Faraday] himself. The goal of these Lectures is to introduce young people to some aspect from the sciences. We’ve seen giant Tetrises before, but not in a way that inspires such a young audience. We’re thrilled to see that hacking both in software (Python, LAN networks) and hardware (ZigBee, OpenWRT) made the cut for this year’s special. After all, why should MIT keep all the fun to themselves?

If the building-scale is just too big for your taste, why not have a go on your oscilloscope?

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