The consumer rights organization reckons this situation could affect various domestic appliances such as washing machines or dishwashers.
These are devices which households might reasonably expect to have a useful lifetime of a decade or more, but may stop working as per the manufacturer’s marketing claims after a couple of years or become vulnerable to security threats, it warned.
The problem, of course, is all that pesky software that requires updates. Or at least it does if you are daft enough to connect any domestic appliances to the open internet, which is the definition of “smart” that Which? has adopted.
This “opens up an array of sophisticated features that can be helpful for consumers,” it states. Obviously, many vendors also like collecting data related to their customers’ usage habits.
For its research, Which? said it approached 119 manufacturing brands with regard to hundreds of smart devices they produced between them, covering 20 different categories of hardware. Only about half responded with clear information regarding software support policies, and in many of these cases, support was provided only for two years, regardless of the expected lifetime of the device itself.
This is despite manufacturers charging higher price tags for smart appliances in the expectation that buyers will be willing to stump up more for something that is supposed to make their life easier through advanced technology.
Which? cites smart dishwashers as an example, saying that they often carry a price tag about £300 ($365) higher on average than more traditional models. These smart versions may offer remote control using an app, allowing people to control their washes using a smartphone or one of those voice-activated assistants, or might use software to determine the most suitable wash program for dishes, choosing cycles that are water and energy efficient.
Which? isn’t saying that such devices are bound to stop working after the two-year support period expires, only that if software forms a vital part of the product and its features, the software shouldn’t be supported for a longer period, perhaps the expected life of the device?
“It’s unfair for manufacturers to sell expensive products that should last for many years and then abandon them,” Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy Rocio Concha said in a statement.
“This means the product could lose the features that justified the hefty price tag and potentially create a security risk or add to the electrical waste mountain if it has to be replaced.”
The consumer champ singled out Korean giant LG as one example, claiming its dishwashers could lose support just two years after launch, and that the company’s smart TVs and washing machines likewise only had guaranteed support for 24 months after launch.
However, the same apparently applies to Sony for its Smart TVs, while it is three years for Samsung’s smart TVs and a similar three years for guaranteed support for HP’s smart printers such as consumer inkjets. All of these products have an estimated lifetime much longer than this, Which? claims.
A number of well-known consumer brands declined to even respond to Which? with details of how long their guaranteed update support periods last, it said.
Which? did have praise for Hisense, which it said supports smart TVs with updates for 10 years, and Miele, which likewise supports smart dishwashers and washing machines for 10 years.
The issue with software updates is that security vulnerabilities may come to light in anything connected to the internet, and will therefore need patching to prevent malicious third parties from potentially exploiting them. Bugs are also likely to be discovered, especially when some modern software approaches can be (only slightly) parodied as “get it out the door quick and fix any problems later.”
Some manufacturers have in the past been forced to extend software support for some devices after an outcry from customers. Smart speaker maker Sonos made a hasty retreat a few years back after announcing plans to drop support for some older kit.
Software support for smart devices would also appear to be something of a bugbear for Which? as the organization issued a warning about homes with such devices becoming more hackable last year, and also alerted owners of smart appliances about the issue of software updates in 2020. ®