Last week saw several interesting IT-related bugs, ooftas and malfunctions being reported. We start this week’s edition of IT Hiccups with a potentially serious software issue in the Nest Labs’ Wi-Fi connected smoke and carbon monoxide detector.
Nest Labs announced on its website last Thursday that it was going to suspend sales of its Nest Protect: Smoke + Carbon Monoxide alarm to fix a “unique combination of circumstances that caused us to question whether the Nest Wave (a feature that enables you to turn off your alarm with a wave of the hand) could be unintentionally activated. This could delay an alarm going off if there was a real fire.” In addition to suspending sales of the product, the company is remotely deactivating (where possible) the Next Wave feature until a software fix is found. The company notes that even with the Wave feature disabled, the detector will work.
According to the New York Times, Nest Labs discovered that during laboratory testing the alarm’s software algorithm could misinterpret movement near the detector as being an intentional “wave” command and shut the unit off. The feature, the ability to easily turn off the smoke detector with a wave of the hand from a distance of 0.6 to 2.4 meters away when there was a false alarm, is a major selling point of Nest Protect. But in its current instantiation, the feature may be a life-threatening bug.
Nest Labs stated that it may take two to three months before a software fix is designed, tested and approved by safety agencies in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Once complete, the company will send out a software update to reactivate the Wave feature. Nest Labs also emphasized that no one has reported that a detector failed to sound an alarm in event of a fire.
Nest Labs, which is better known for its elegantly-designed Learning Thermostat, was purchased earlier this year by Google for $3.2 billion in cash. There have also been reports of a small number of Nest thermostat customers having wiring-related problems.
The issue with Nest Protect nicely highlights, as IEEE Spectrum’s Automaton editor Erico Guizzo noted to me, the paradox of how software can make things more complicated and worse (i.e., a flawed hand-waving feature), as well as how software can make things more complicated and better (i.e., a remote software update to fix the bug).
The Financial Times of Londonreemphasized Guizzo’s point in its article on the Nest Protect software bug. It noted that customers and companies can expect these types of incidents to occur more often as “smart” technology is added to simple devices in the emerging rush to embrace the “Internet of Things.” The article also noted that companies’ customer service better be ready to respond when a problem is found. The FT noted, for instance, that just in January, Nest Lab was “forced to increase its customer-support hours after several customers complained about persistent false alarms” that were unrelated to the current software issue.
Eircom Says We’re “Embarrassed” Over the Error, But We Still Want Our Money Now
There are a lot of customers who are angry with Eircom, the largest telecom provider in the Republic of Ireland. Apparently, some 30 000 of its customers will be receiving bills of as much as €500 in their next billing cycle. Eircom is attempting to recoup funds it previously failed to collect because of what it is calling a “system error,” the company told Dublin’s Herald newspaper. That error relates to its implementation of the new Single European Payments Area (SEPA)—a project that is meant to harmonize how retail payments are made and processed across the 34 European countries. The affected customers, which the Dublin Herald describes as “a mix of phone and internet users, mainly those with bundle packages, who make monthly direct debit payments...did not have some or all of their monthly direct debit payments taken from their bank accounts for phone, broadband and TV service since January.” This was despite the fact that customers’ bills showed that the bills had indeed been paid.
Eircom’s director of corporate affairs said that the incident was not only “regrettable,” but that “it’s embarrassing and we're very sorry that it's happened.”
However, Eircom wasn’t too embarrassed or sorry to insist that although it plans to reimburse the failed direct debit fee charge of €18.45, those 30 000 customers would still have to pay all the monies owed the telecom immediately.
Eircon’s hard stand has not endeared it with Ireland’s telecom regulator, which publicly stated that it is demanding a report into the billing error and how it happened. The regulator also wants to know why Eircom failed to inform it that a billing problem had occurred.
In Other News…
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.