IT and Business Insights for SMB Solution Providers

The Danger of Cloud-Powered Hardware

Computing and obsolescence go hand in hand, but hardware tied to services might have an unexpected expiration date. By Matt Whitlock

I’ve long been a fan of electronic doodads, and as I’ve gotten older that’s made me a bit of a hardware historian. I think it’s the rapid evolution of computers and electronics that has fascinated me, almost to the point of obsession. Having a personal gadget museum isn’t exactly a “normal” thing (listen to ChannelPro Weekly for a weekly museum pick!), but I tend to think of it like a healthy collection of baseball cards (or Pokémon cards for you millennial readers out there).

And just like a card collector might like to flip through the players and revel in the stats of baseball seasons long past, from time to time I like to pull an old Sharp PDA (personal digital sssistant), MiniDisc player, or gaming console off the shelf and take it for a spin down memory lane. Spending so much time using these now-ancient devices has given me some insight into the paradigms around design, user interface, and function that grace the digital devices of today, which I believe has helped me as a technology writer.

When Hardware Becomes Useless

Unfortunately, would-be future gadget collectors (be they writer or enthusiast) may not get the chance to really play with the hardware of yesteryear, and the reason is something that those who both use and devise solutions with technology must understand: Hardware obsolescence is increasingly caused by the termination of a supporting service, not the usefulness or physical failure of the device. In other words, more and more electronic devices are reliant on the existence of a back-end service for most or all of their intended function, and without it, the hardware itself is essentially useless.

Computers and obsolescence are nothing new. Heck, any computer put into service today is already obsolete, and if it isn’t right now, it probably will be tomorrow. One of the things I love about a PC, however, is that its usefulness can last far longer than its intended purpose, and far longer than it is “officially” supported. Computer hardware itself isn’t reliant on anything to operate; so long as the software it runs doesn’t exceed the capabilities of the hardware itself, it can operate as long as the physical hardware is operable.

Right now, I could run to the basement and fire up any 20-year-old Windows 95–era machine and do almost all of the same things I would have done with it at the time. Internet Explorer 2.0 probably wouldn’t render the modern Web, but I could still download, install, and run a huge range of era software. That was the nature of computing back then, and most devices for that matter. Assuming I still had good VHS tapes, my VCR would still play them on my TV screen today. With four AA batteries, my original Nintendo Game Boy would still play my Link’s Awakening cartridge just as flawlessly today as it did all those years ago.

But that was then, and this is now. Using the iPod Touch/iPhone as the modern-day equivalent to the Game Boy (at least it wishes!), do you think in 20 years you’d be able to fire up an iPhone 6 and even connect to the iTunes App store, let alone download and install apps? Out of the box, an iPhone without the app store is just a Windows Phone that wishes it were a Windows Phone (zing!). And even if you had apps still installed, most of those wouldn’t function without the service behind it to authenticate ownership, and feed it information, stats, and so on.

What about Client Computing Devices?

Phones are one thing, yet client computing devices are heading in the same direction. Some are already there. The iPad, for example, is just as equally dependent on the cloud as any other iOS device. Android is centered around the cloud, but not 100 percent dependent on it given the ability to side-load applications. Windows PCs will always have a large library of Win32 software it can run, but the push to Universal Windows Apps will make Windows that much more dependent on the cloud.

The real danger of cloud-powered hardware becomes evident in other types of hardware, like IoT, surveillance, and numerous gizmos that rely on the presence of a cloud service to function. Oftentimes, that service is wholly supported by the manufacturer, and should that manufacturer go under or simply decide it no longer wants to support the service, then the hardware that relies on it becomes a doorstop. It’s reasonable to assume big players like Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Apple aren’t going to be closing their doors anytime soon and can afford to keep services in place for long periods of time, but it is a danger with smaller players that can go under or be acquired.

The consumer world is becoming increasingly filled with devices that could work one minute and cease to function then next. Consumers, however, choose to either ignore or accept the fact that their brand-new $300 video streaming doorbell will only work as long as the manufacturer stays in business and decides it’s in the company’s interest to do so. As IT becomes increasingly consumerized in a variety of ways, more and more business-class hardware will begin to rely on third-party services. Such services are already creeping into a number of storage devices, networking gear, on-premises security, and more.

Solution providers should be careful when deploying hardware that has an unknown expiration date, or at least relies on services for a large part of their functionality. Get to know your vendors, and when deploying such devices, make sure your customers understand the risks.

5 Examples of Hardware Reliant on Services

Click the images in the gallery below to learn about five devices that essentially turn into door stops without their supporting cloud service.

About the Author

Matt Whitlock's picture

Matt Whitlock is online director and technical editor for ChannelProSMB.com.

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