Photo: Nest

The Internet of Things Isn't Ready for Babies

Nest's four-hour outage shows companies and parents need to be more responsible about their connected childcare.

Sep 8 2015, 7:25pm

Photo: Nest

Last night, the internet-of-things company Nest, which has been owned by Google since January of last year, experienced a network outage—meaning its home thermostats, smoke detectors, and in-home security cameras basically stopped working for at least four hours.

Such an outage is inconvenient if your Nest product of choice is a thermostat, somewhat concerning if it's a smoke detector, and incredibly worrying if it's a baby monitor.

Nest Cam, the rebranded version of Dropcam, a company Nest acquired in June of 2014, is an internet-connected camera. Nest pitches it as a solution for home security, encouraging customers to use the device to monitor the garage, or kitchen, or to "use Nest Cam as a pet cam or baby monitor."

Since Nest Cam allows parents to check in easily on their kids through a mobile phone, this use has become popular. So news of an outage at 9 PM on a Monday night—when most babies are in bed—caused a lot of anxiety.

At 9:27 PM, the company's official support Twitter account acknowledged the issue:

But the problem had started at least 20 minutes earlier, and parents were feeling betrayed (and mad):

Nest's support Twitter account had some advice for users: "we'd recommend trying later today or tomorrow at the latest."

Nest's thermostats and other products work by connecting to the Wi-Fi in your home and they sync to its cloud service. They are controllable on the unit themselves, and also, in the case of the thermostats, by an app on your phone. I've had Nests in my house for almost a year. Most of the time, they function as advertised, allowing me to change the temperature of various zones from my iPhone. Occasionally, though, there are connection problems: the app doesn't sync to the wall unit, and I can't change the temperature from 74 to 72. This is an annoyance at worst, especially as the wall units have a backup which allows you to control your home's temperature even in the event that your app isn't working.

Nest Cams, however, only operate when the company's cloud service is working, meaning parents had no recourse but to wait.

But an outage on your baby monitor, even for a few minutes, with no backup unit—especially if you happen to be away from home and your child is with a babysitter—is potentially very alarming.

Traditional baby monitors—such as those made by Motorola—work by creating their own, discrete wireless connection. They have a dedicated unit that you plug in, charge, and carry around with you in your house while the baby is sleeping.

Their functioning isn't affected by either an error on Motorola's end, or an outage of your home network: in nearly two years of using one, I've only lost a signal a dozen or so times, for a minute or less, and often it's caused by wandering with the unit out of the range of the camera. It's reliable, but there are drawbacks: I can't check on my baby on my phone. When I leave her in someone else's care, I trust that they'll let me know when she wakes up, as they sit in my house with the monitor.

A few months back, we momentarily tried using a Dropcam in lieu of the old Motorola. We want the future. We want to be connected. Within a few minutes, it lost its signal a few times: it was dependent on our Verizon internet service to function, in addition to being dependent on Nest's cloud services being operational. We gave up and kept the Motorola.

Last night, no matter how well your home's WiFi network was blazing, the loss of Nest's cloud rendered your monitor useless.

The Nest outage isn't in itself a sign of any pending apocalypse, no need to be overly alarmist. All the babies were just fine, I'm sure. But it does make the question of home security seem more pressing, especially when there are little sleeping humans involved.

The future—especially when we're dealing with baby gear—needs to come consciously and probably slowly. Little pads and booties that function as monitors for your baby's movements and heart rate which are meant to alert you to a possible SIDS situation (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the leading cause of death in babies 1 month to 1 year old) are useless if they malfunction, telling you there is an emergency when there isn't one—or worse—that there isn't one when there is. When a traditional monitor ceases to function, you throw it in the garbage and replace it, another $200 down the tubes for a good cause. But when the whole network is down, you're essentially helpless. A system that is supposed to integrate your home life into the "internet of things"—to pull you happily and seamlessly into the future where you can leave your house and know within a moment if your baby is crying or if there is a fire, throws you back into the 1950s, sitting outside the baby's door listening for sounds of life or movement. There is no backup, yet.

So what will it take for us to feel safe trusting our babies to the "internet of things?" Well, a backup that can work for 10 to 12 hours without network communication, for starters. A cogent explanation of what went wrong last night, for second. Maybe that sounds like a tall order, but surely Google can figure it out, right? After all, you can't advertise your product as a baby monitor and take this episode lightly, can you?

Or can you?