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Benjamin Andre, Co-Founder & CEO from MEF Member and personal data specialist Cozy Cloud shares insights into how the notion of ownership in the world of connected devices is changing.

The things you own end up owning you: the buddhist idea has never been truer than in the case of Internet-connected objects. What do we actually own when we buy a smartphone, a smart fridge, an ebook on Kindle? The smart device is currently killing the notion of ownership.

Let’s take a few steps back. In 2014, after the acquisition of Revolv by Nest, the owners of the home automation hub Revolv, get a nasty surprise when they learn their hub is going to be disconnected by Nest. The company has decided to stop providing its solution, and the little box will stop working forever once Nest decides.

Legally, there’s no problem: the hardware is no longer under warranty, and buyers have accepted the terms of use. But theory is not practice: dissatisfaction is growing among owners of the Revolv, who feel as if Nest has actually come into their homes to disconnect their hardware.

In buying a Revolv hub, what did they own? A container of hummus, replies Arlo Gilbert. Nothing more than a service which could be stopped overnight, with no chance of replacing it.

What are we really buying?

We are all more or less aware that we depend on the goodwill of companies that provide us with services. But it’s far more shocking when these companies sell us a physical object that is rendered unusable overnight, or they limit the use of these objects.

 Most of the time, we buy two things: a concrete object, which we actually own, to run the software we’re really interested in.

Apple recently filed a patent for infra-red technology which disables its devices during concerts, the colorimetric probe, Colormunki can only be used on its owner’s (i.e., Apple’s) computer… The right to ownership is gradually being transformed into the right to use as specified in the Terms & Conditions of Use. But to get back to our starting point: when we buy something, what do we own?

Most of the time, we buy two things: a concrete object, which we actually own, to run the software we’re really interested in. Of course, we could use our Revolv hub to prop up a shelf, but this is not exactly the function we had in mind when we bought it. Without the software, our device becomes nothing more than a classic object. But are we really buying the software that comes with it, or only the right to use it?

Companies who sell software programs commit to much more than companies selling a physical object: a program has to be maintained, updated, especially in terms of security. This is not true of a toaster. If a company manufacturing toasters closes, your toaster will continue to work. If the company which develops the software closes, the software will continue to function but the services aligned to it will disappear: no more updates, no more cloud, no more tests, sometimes the device will even cease to work if it needs to be permanently connected to a server. This was the case for Revolv.

Free the software to free the user

Of course, all this is part of the Terms & Conditions of Use which nobody reads. Yet for most of us, buying an object is equivalent to owning it. Is it clear and unambiguous that an e-book bought on Amazon can only be read on a Kindle or Amazon’s Kindle app? Are we aware in buying a Colormunki colorimetric probe that we can only use it on a single computer?

This is what « to own » an internet-connected object should mean:

  • I own the hardware. I use it as I see fit: if I buy a digital shovel, I should be able to lend it to my neighbour without limiting my use.
  • the software running on my device should be sustainable, and independent of the goodwill of the society which produces it. The hardware should not be unusable without the software. The only answer: open the code or make it possible to install open code. My fridge does not stop working if the company closes, neither does my software.
  • the use of this device should not condition my other uses: it must be compatible with the rest of my hardware. I do not need an adapter to plug in my vacuum cleaner.

And when the device running the software is free, this is indeed the case! A company which develops free software cannot unilaterally decide to stop its service, because the software in question can be maintained, shared, improved, adapted, by the community. Free software is at the service of its users: it doesn’t limit their options, it doesn’t go against their will, it doesn’t lock them into a proprietary system.

That is why today, at Cozy Cloud, the choice of free software seems inevitable. Our users should not be locked into a system that deprives them of their autonomy. Your data belongs to you, and your personal cloud too!

Benjamin Andre

Co-Founder & CEO, Cozy Cloud


This post originally appeared on the Cozy Cloud blog and is reused with kind permission.

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