Welcome to Late Stage Capitalism, Where One Company Buys Another and Your Stuff Stops Working
Once upon a time, there was a company named Wyze that made cheap security cameras and other various IoT products. As of today, Wyze cameras won’t detect people anymore. People detection, to be clear, is a major feature of Wyze cameras. The Wyze Cam is advertised as offering “custom zone detection and sensitivity settings,” and you automatically get a clip of what the camera captures while the full recording is saved in the cloud.
Yesterday, Apple bought the AI company Xnor.ai. In and of itself, that’s not particularly interesting, except for the impact it had on Wyze users. But firmware is now rolling out to Wyze devices that removes their ability to detect people. To be fair to Wyze, the company did warn users that the removal was happening back in November, via forum post and email, though some people will still be unpleasantly surprised.
Wyze has promised that the removal is temporary and that they will roll out a replacement this year. The company claims to have assembled its own AI engineering group, and promises that the functionality will remain free, even if it moves to cloud processing rather than using AI. It may even be possible to avoid losing the capability by refusing to update your firmware (some Wyze users speculated about this in the original comment thread). The company needs to deliver on what it’s promising, but it seems to be making the right moves.
But nothing Wyze is doing — nothing Wyze can do — changes the intrinsic absurdity of the situation. Users who purchased a camera for the purpose of person detection will no longer have access to this capability because Apple bought an AI company. It will be gone for the indefinite future. If you update your firmware (voluntarily or no), you may lose the very reason you bought the product in the first place.
An Extremely Abbreviated History of Property
The idea that all people have intrinsic property rights is pretty new compared with the scope of human history. You can date the beginnings of the idea to the Renaissance, but the debate really kicks off in 17th century England. No less a figure than Thomas Hobbes argued in Leviathan that ordinary men had no right to withhold property from their sovereign and that a ruler could seize the belongings of anyone he ruled over without consent. Property ownership in ancient societies was often restricted to particular classes or groups. Jews, for example, were often forbidden from owning property, as were African-Americans prior to the Civil War. Women were still considered the legal property of their husbands in both England and the United States until the mid-to-late 19th century.
My still-living grandmother has told me about how she was unable to get a credit card without a male co-signer before the 1970s. Clearly, we’re still ironing out the bugs, even as both the concept of ownership and the idea that products and services should prioritize human beings over corporations have both come under attack.
The “concept of ownership” argument is one you’ve probably heard a thousand times before. In brief: The rise of digital products and services, combined with an always-available internet has made it much easier for companies to create subscription models that deliver access to content on-demand but never actually allow you to own anything. It’s a complex topic that touches on everything from consumer freedom of choice to whether subscription models provide better economic value than purchasing physical products, which itself depends on how the product is used. It’s a discussion worth having, but it’s not what I’m here to talk about.
Modern IP Agreements, Contracts Aren’t Written for Humans
The disagreements between cable companies and content providers are a perfect example of how good customer outcomes are increasingly ignored. When the two sides fight, customers lose access to the shows in question, but are still generally expected to pay full price for a product they literally aren’t receiving. Last year, DirecTV and Comcast were both caught charging customers a Regional Sports Network fee despite not carrying content from a major RSN, Altitude Sports. Both companies had dropped Altitude two months earlier. Comcast had at least been offering refunds. DirecTV just kept on charging people. Can you break your contract with your cable company when you discover you’ve been charged for a product that was not provided? Generally speaking, no. ISPs, however, are allowed to charge you for an entire month’s service, even if you cancel halfway through the month. In other contexts, charging someone for services you then knowingly don’t provide is called fraud.
The smart home market is another area where this issue runs rampant. A number of companies have launched with hardware that’s fully capable of interoperation with other systems, only to deliberately junk their own equipment as part of going out of business. Planned obsolescence is itself obsolete, replaced by programmed obsolescence. Spectrum is the latest company to win this badge of honor for refusing to allow its Zigbee security cameras to communicate with Zigbee devices made by other companies. If anything keeps the smart home concept from taking off, it’ll be the way the industry is repeatedly burning its own early adopters.
One of the hallmarks of programmed obsolescence is that when it happens, humans often have no recourse. When Rockstar lost its license to the music in GTA IV, the company summarily yanked the affected songs right out of the game. There was no option to purchase them for your own personal use, even if you wanted to. Apparently, it wasn’t worth it to Rockstar to renegotiate the rights or the company was unable to do so. Neither explanation does anything for the people who bought the game and want the soundtrack it shipped with.
Imagine, for a moment, if this standard applied to movies. What if Hollywood studios or streaming services were required to pay royalties for every song in a movie for a given period? What would happen when those agreements inevitably expired? If that sounds crazy, I’d like to remind you that Hollywood literally patched an in-theater movie for the first time in history last December. Anybody want to hear the replacement tracks for Star Wars when the license with John Williams expires because Disney and his estate can’t come to an agreement circa 2050?
Similarly, did any human on Earth choose to continue doing business with Equifax after their 2017 data breach? Were we allowed to have a voice in whether this company was allowed to continue to exist? That’s not an unreasonable request given that we’re forced to do business with it.
What’s striking about many of these outcomes is how there’s no one to actually blame. Apple bought Xnor.ai, so Apple is well within its rights to terminate previous license agreements. Wyze can’t expect to continue to benefit from technology it hasn’t licensed. And finally: End users shouldn’t expect to retain permanent access to a technology Wyze provides, even if Wyze didn’t explicitly communicate to said users that they were only renting a feature they thought they were purchasing. If you accept the precepts, the conclusion is inevitable: Regular users get screwed to one degree or another and nobody cares.
We didn’t used to accept these precepts. Again, I’m not trying to bash Wyze here — the company is reacting to the facts as they exist on the ground today, and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this specific situation is relatively small potatoes. The problem is, it’s not just one event or company. It’s everywhere.
If Intel or AMD were founded today, they’d be named Chiply. You’d sign up for a service that shipped you a CPU of your choice with a corresponding monthly fee and a hardwired 30-day validation requirement. Need to save money? No problem! Just agree to run a performance analyzer and to share your personal web traffic 24/7 so Chiply can gather useful data to improve future products. You can’t see what data the profiler collects and you aren’t allowed to know what Chiply does with it, and you’re certainly not going to get any information about which “trusted partners” Chiply sells it to shares it with, and you wouldn’t ever be told that those trusted partners are under no obligation to protect your data, and Chiply would never voluntarily admit that it actually ran the profiling application on everyone’s computer, whether you paid a monthly fee or not.
But hey. Free CPU.