A light bulb that does not work

A light bulb that does not work

A light bulb that does not work

You know how frustrating it is when you put a cartridge in your printer, and it tuts at you about “not an approved part”, after which, printing becomes even more of a lottery than usual? Now you can get the same experience with light bulbs.

In mid-December, Philips — best known for the fabulously popular compact cassette and then the fabulously unpopular digital compact cassette — released a firmware update for its Hue LED light bulbs and controllers. Apart from having a rather HAL-like appearance, with a glowing red centre surrounded by blackness, the Hue is meant to let you control the colour and brightness of your bulbs, all from the comfort of your smartphone.

At this point, I pause to wonder who feels an urgent need to change the colour and brightness of their lights from their phone. Do they also have black satin sheets, R Kelly playing on low volume and mirrors on the ceiling? Although apparently there are uses if you combine them with a Hue Disco app so you can synchronise light effects with music.
For everyone else, it seems like the latest example from the Internet of Useless Things; why can’t you just stand up and turn a couple of lights off?

But anyway, some people like Hue. The firmware update, however, had no particularly obvious benefits to you, the user. Instead, it was apparently devised solely to block the use of any ‘non-approved’ bulbs in Hue sockets, thus boosting Philips’s profit by making you pay for pricier ones.

This moves us into the Internet of Ridiculous Things. How exactly can Philips dictate that, after you’ve paid for the sockets, it gets to decide what you can do with them? But, as journalist Cory Doctorow pointed out, any American who tried to tweak the software would have faced a fine of up to $500,000 under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In an FAQ on its developer site, Philips said it “upgraded the software for Hue to ensure the best seamless connected lighting experience for our customers. This change was made in good faith.” But then it admitted to having “underestimated” the impact on the “small number” of people using third-party bulbs.

The other wrinkle, though, is that all the bulbs were using the Zigbee protocol — an “open, global standard” — for their control. Yet, Philips decided that it would close down its corner of that standard and henceforth make its device work only with approved bulbs.

Companies build things around standards and insert their own proprietary elements all the time. But what’s different about this is that Philips shifted ground. You started off being able to put in third-party bulbs, and then it decided you couldn’t, and enforced that through a software rollout you couldn’t avoid. Watching Philips get this so wrong brings to mind its debacle with digital compact cassette (DCC), a format introduced in 1992. Customers didn’t see the point and stayed away. Yet 20 years later, Philips still hasn’t learned that lesson.