Music fans may be familiar with the term DRM, short for digital rights management; it's the unpopular access-control technology that was previously added to songs in the Apple iTunes store to limit usage and copying. But should those same encumbrances apply to your lightbulb? According to a recent article in The Atlantic, smart home technology, often pitched as a means of offering consumers more freedom and customization, can have its own built-in restrictions, which may become more onerous as manufacturers refine their offerings and build out proprietary platforms. Last month, Philips, the Dutch electronics company, made a consumer relations gaffe with an update to its smart bulb system that may foreshadow future issue with smart home interoperability.
The Philips Hue Smart Bulb system—which lets users program "scenes" and adjust their home lighting via their smartphones—pushed out a firmware update in December that made non-Philips bulbs incompatible with Hue lights, many of which were previously supported (though some didn't work perfectly with the Hue system). Hue runs on the ZigBee standard, and the Philips software update blocked many Zigbee-compatible bulbs, which angered owners. After an online consumer outcry, the company quickly backtracked and pushed out another update a few days later restoring interoperability.
Why is the victory of a small subset of early adopters so important? Smart home technology, set to be an important focus at this week's mammoth CES trade show in Vegas, will become more pervasive and mainstream over time. But if companies create walled gardens with their own copyrighted technology, utilizing law such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to enact technological protection measures that, say, make it illegal to develop a third-party smart home camera that works with a proprietary system, it could potentially limit consumer choice as well as technological innovation. While DRM technology has been used in all manner of media for years, appliance companies have just recently begun to apply it to new products; Keurig made a major misstep trying to apply similar technology to coffeemakers in early 2015. Many tech companies, such as Samsung, have spoke of keeping their smart home technology open. But with an increasing amount of consumers adopting the technology, the article concludes, technology companies will have a bigger and bigger financial incentive to create their own standards, ecosystems, and in effect, monopolies.