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Has Google just bricked its devices worldwide?

28 June 2018

Do you have one of those new-fangled "Google Home" speaker things (like Alexa) or a Google Chromecast?

If so, there's a very good chance that it's not working right now (as I type this).

There are reports that, as the Google Home device is explaining to those who own them, "something went wrong".

Early indications seem to point to an issue with network connectivity... perhaps after an unannounced update of the firmware.

If this is the case and, due to a cock-up on the catering front, these devices can no longer talk to the network to which they're attached, Google (and its customers) have a huge problem. What's more, this is a problem we're likely to see occurring more often as we have the IOT playing an increasingly large role in our daily lives.

Unless there's some kind of easily accessible roll-back or "factory reset" option on such devices, a bad update could result in millions of "smart" devices being bricked, in the blink of an eye.

Even for a company the size and strength of Google, having to replace every Chromecast and Google Home unit they've ever sold would be a significant hit to the bottom-line, and their reputation.

So do devices like this have an "emergency reset" button in case of failed updates?

It doesn't seem to be the case for the Chromecast (but I could be wrong) and it may also not be the case for the Google Home device either. The problem is that these days, most electronic devices are built "down to a price" and if the manufacturer can save a dollar by leaving out a ROM with the emergency restart code, odds are they'll do just that.

This is a situation further exacerbated by the way companies are pushing for annual replacement of so many products. I guess they figure that if your old one is bricked, you'll just buy another (newer version) and a would-be disaster becomes a windfall.

Of course you might as "why is this stuff getting automatic firmware updates anyway?"

Well the answer is almost certainly down to security.

Nothing's perfect (not even me -- sorry if that comes as a shock to long-time readers but it's true) so manufacturers have the choice of just leaving a device to be exploited by hackers or to build in some form of automatic update process. It looks like they're damned if they do, damned if they don't.

But surely the programmers who roll-out such updates have thoroughly checked them.

Not always... just note how savvy PC users often wait a week or two before allowing the latest updates to Windows to be installed (if they can). There have been many, many instances where updates end up breaking more stuff than they fix on your desktop, so why would an IOT device be any different?

If Google's current predicament turns out to be the result of a bad firmware update that can't be rolled back then perhaps we'll see some significant changes to the way this stuff is designed. Maybe the next version *will* have a magic little button labeled "factory reset", hidden away in a place where the user can poke a pin or something while the device is powered up.

Would you be more inclined to buy a smart product if it has a factory reset button to mitigate the effects of an auto-update to the firmware that would otherwise leave it totally bricked?

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