'Smart' Home Platform Wink Changes The Deal, Suddenly Imposes Subscription Fees

from the nickel-and-dime dept

Time and time again we’ve highlighted how in the modern era you don’t really own the hardware you buy. In the broadband connected era, firmware updates can often eliminate functionality promised to you at launch, as we saw with the Sony Playstation 3. And with everything now relying on internet connectivity, companies can often give up on supporting devices entirely, often leaving users with very expensive paperweights as we saw after Google acquired Revolv.

And with the world shifting toward a “service as a subscription” model for everything, the products you buy can also suddenly cost you far more than the original value proposition suggested. Users who spent money to outfit their home with hardware from Wink learned this the hard way, when the company suddenly announced users would need to start paying a $5 per month subscription fee if they wanted the company’s “smart” home products to keep working.

According to a company blog post, users who don’t pay the fee will “no longer be able to access your Wink devices from the app, with voice control or through the API,” and all automations will be disabled on May 13. The blog post also attempts to explain that because the company doesn’t rampantly monetize your personal data (something it’s routinely hard for consumers to verify), the fee is necessary to keep the lights on:

“Wink has taken many steps in an effort to keep your Hub?s blue light on, however, long term costs and recent economic events have caused additional strain on our business. Unlike companies that sell user data to offset costs associated with offering free services, we do not. Data privacy is one of Wink?s core values, and we believe that user data should never be sold for marketing or any purpose.”

Granted until late last week, “mo monthly fees” was part of the company’s marketing pitch:

Users who spent significant money on the Wink smart home platform under the promise of “no monthly fees” were given just seven days to decide if they wanted to pay the subscription, or deal with the headache of finding an entirely new smart home platform (during a pandemic, no less). Given they’re not seeing refunds in the face of this head fake, many aren’t particularly amused or impressed:

Reports had suggested that the company had been having trouble paying its employees since last fall. Given the added economic strain from the pandemic, it’s possible that the company might not be operational down the road, meaning users will get bilked first by added fees, then potentially lose functionality anyway should the company fall apart completely. It’s yet another shining example of how dumber technology often remains the smarter option in a world where your IOT product value equation and functionality can pivot on a dime, often for the worse.

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Companies: wink

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Comments on “'Smart' Home Platform Wink Changes The Deal, Suddenly Imposes Subscription Fees”

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39 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Yes.

They did it on a single week of notice too. I hope nobody was relying on the ability to control their home over the internet. You know, as one might want to do if stuck elsewhere during a pandemic.

But, save your receipts, because maybe buyers will be able to split a two-dollar Wink-subscription gift certificate with some class-action lawyer 5 years from now.

Anonymous Coward says:

I think this is a complete load of B.S. I don’t see how you can sell something like they have been doing and later down the road go, ops, now we need to start charging you and everything you paid for will stop working and become worthless junk. I hope they get sued over this. I’ll NEVER buy anything from them.

I find it funny, how other companies can manage just fine? You can get a cheap WYZE camera for $25 and they give you free cloud storage clips which are good enough for my needs. Works with the app. No extra charges.

These are company’s like EUFY with their Video Doorbell, and security cameras, that can do local storage, and her still work over the internet and the app and costs your nothing per month.

Wink wants to screw over their users by throwing on a $5 monthly charge? So $60 a year for what???? Pretty much forever so long as you continue to use their devices? No way in hell would I ever buy anything from them.

I would also expect them to give me a full refund for making the hardware I acquired from them worthless. They can have the junk back.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

"long term costs and recent economic events have caused additional strain on our business"

"Reports had suggested that the company had been having trouble paying its employees since last fall."

So, translation: our business model sucks, and we decided to join the ranks of people pretending that isn’t the pandemic rather than our own failure responsible for it.

I’d like to see a deeper explanation, though. Surely devices like this won’t take up a huge amount of bandwidth and server capacity under normal operation, and these would presumably be fixed and not increase over time. What long term costs did they not factor in?

"Granted until late last week, "mo monthly fees" was part of the company’s marketing pitch"

I’m fairly sure that UK/EU consumer protection laws would mean that recent customers would be entitled to a full refund without question in those circumstances. A shame it’s even a question in the US.

ldd (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I went and checked how things are going with Wink products on Amazon. The one-star reviews have been rolling in. Those I saw were "verified purchase". I’d expect all those folks to have little trouble returning their Amazon purchase. I’ve returned Amazon stuff for all kinds of reasons. Never had a problem.

I wonder if Amazon takes notice if they get massive returns on a specific brand. I’d like to think they do but I’ve been flagging left and right the fake hand sanitizers that are available for sale on Amazon since the shortage of the real stuff began. (By "fake" I mean products that don’t conform to FDA requirements.) I have not perceived much concern on Amazon’s part. I’ve seen the stuff I flag being removed but if Amazon really cared the stuff would not be put up in the first place. For sure it would cost Amazon money to pay for real people (not algorithms) to do the work. So I don’t know: amazon might see a ton of returns on Wink’s stuff and just shrug.

No clue how it is going to play out for those folks who bought from elsewhere.

Wink definitely does seem to be in a death spiral. Their yanking on the stick to try to avoid crashing is just making the spiral tighter and faster.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"I’d expect all those folks to have little trouble returning their Amazon purchase"

Well, yes, but those would presumably be at Amazon’s discretion. They tend to be pretty good about such things, but it shouldn’t be dependent on the goodwill of a 3rd party.

"I wonder if Amazon takes notice if they get massive returns on a specific brand."

I’m sure they, do, but they will take care when it can be seen as cracking down on a competing product. Amazon do some shady things, but they also take a lot of flak for things they do when they’re in the right as well.

"Wink definitely does seem to be in a death spiral."

I’m going to take a wild guess that they built their business on the assumption that they would sell a certain number of products per year, and they’ve fallen woefully behind those projections. Actions like this won’t exactly endear them to new customers, so we’ll likely read about their demise soon.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
DB (profile) says:

Signing up for a subscription is a doubly bad deal. We’ve learned that privacy statements are as ephemeral as glowing phosphor dots on a CRT: terms can change at any time.
This is a company that unilaterally changed the contract terms with effectively no notice. Are you really going to give them more money PLUS the additional information and power that goes with billing your credit card?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Triply bad. We know they’re having financial trouble, and can predict that most buyers will see this as a bait-and-switch and be reluctant to give them money. Nobody will ever trust them again. Which means you’re giving money to a company in a death spiral, and if you pay, you’ll maybe get a few months and will then be their unsecured creditor.

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Please stop faulting the business"

No, they deserve the blame as well.

"they’ve literally sacrificed everything for "free""

No, they haven’t. They bought a package for $199 and are now being told that the package they bought will retroactively cost them more than they agreed to on paying when they bought it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Charging money directly contradicts their advertising, and we can expect this to end with a strongly-worded warning from the FTC that they’ll be in trouble if they do this again (which they won’t, because they’ll be dead by then).

It is nevertheless unwise of customers to buy a product that requires a continuing subscription. What happens when the terms change in a way that does not directly contradict their advertising? Maybe they’ll require you to agree to waive your class action rights, send them a scan of your government ID, only sue in person in Alaska, whatever.

Or maybe the company will simply lose interest in this "old" product and shut down the servers you depend on, or will forget about it when they get bought out, or will go bankrupt. Which happens all the time with this type of product. I’ll bet there are more defunct server-dependent products from 5 years ago than there are still-working ones.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"Charging money directly contradicts their advertising"

No, their advertising states that they charge $199 for the product, and this charge includes a lifetime subscription.

"What happens when the terms change in a way that does not directly contradict their advertising?"

That’s a different problem.

"Or maybe the company will simply lose interest in this "old" product and shut down the servers you depend on, or will forget about it when they get bought out, or will go bankrupt."

Then, that’s a natural risk of dealing with any business and needs to be factored into any decision to buy. But, it’s a very different issue to a company deliberately changing the purchase after the fact.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Then, that’s a natural risk of dealing with any business

Kind of, but when we’re talking about something like a telephone company, a continuing relationship is to be expected. This thing was sold as an appliance. My grandparents didn’t get rid of their decades-old Ford refrigerator till around 2010, when the power company begged people to get rid of these old things. Still worked fine, as do other appliances from long-defunct businesses. Many people expect appliances to last until they physically break, not for the couple years before the manufacturer gets bored.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

"This thing was sold as an appliance."

…with a subscription component that was mean to be included in the price. My Amazon Fire TV works without me subscribing to Amazon prime. If they suddenly changed it so that I couldn’t use it to watch non-subscription services without it, that would be a breach of what I paid for it no matter how you want to spin it.

"My grandparents didn’t get rid of their decades-old Ford refrigerator till around 2010"

Yet, they undoubtedly paid for a certain level of warranty that you’d complain about if they were told they had to pay extra for basic repairs the week after they bought it. It’s not about the functionality so much as the fact that the package they paid for is no longer the package they paid for.

"Many people expect appliances to last until they physically break"

Then, they pay for cheaper devices which lack the extra functionality that was paid for here. You seem desperate to blame the consumer for paying for something rather than the supplier for literally ripping them off a week after they bought it, based on technology a century old. Which is funny, but I’m just imagining how much you’d whine if Microsoft told you that the TCP/IP stack will now cost you extra to make your comment here.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

You seem desperate to blame the consumer for paying for something rather than the supplier for literally ripping them off a week after they bought it

What are you talking about? I don’t know how you could possibly read this as blaming the customer. The point is that people expect this shit to work for years, and the manufacturer broke it. I have serious doubts that the buyers realized the product depended on the goodwill of the manufacturer to continue working. People link it to their wifi, access it over their phone, and probably have no idea whether remote access goes directly to their home connection or involves a third-party server.

Of course it was a ripoff. The thing should work until smoke starts coming out of it, which shouldn’t be for like 5-10 years at least. These 1-year warranties that have become standard in the consumer-electronics space are ridiculous.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

"I don’t know how you could possibly read this as blaming the customer."

I was assuming you were the same anonymous person who typed this in the beginning of the thread:

"Start faulting the consumers who are so damn stupid, they’ve literally sacrificed everything for "free"."

I apologise if your unwillingness to differentiate yourself from that person led to me to believe that was you.

"I have serious doubts that the buyers realized the product depended on the goodwill of the manufacturer to continue working"

Then, they did not understand what they were buying, in which case it doesn’t matter how or why the service they paid for changed.

"These 1-year warranties that have become standard in the consumer-electronics space are ridiculous."

Yet, you’d still explain complaints if the warranty cost and terms changed a week after they bought it.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"What is this business can do no wrong crapola?"

The classic rhetoric of an old, known troll who has haunted Techdirt for years – and Torrentfreak, before they switched to a disqus login model.

We like to refer to him under one or several of the sock puppets he’s posted under in the past – out_of_the_blue, bobmail, Jhon Smith, and, i believe, Antidirt.

I usually refer to him as Baghdad Bob for the usual logical value he tends to present in his "arguments".

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Start faulting the consumers who are so damn stupid, they’ve literally sacrificed everything for "free"."

So as per usual your argument is that when a company perpetrates de facto fraud it’s all the fault of the consumer who got tricked?

I shouldn’t be surprised, Bobmail (or is it Blue or Jhon today?). Blaming The Victim has always been your thing, after all. Apparently, even after #MeToo you still remain one of those types who feels the beaten spouse is at fault for provoking the other party to violence.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Pity honestly wasn't also on that list...

Sold the product claiming that it most certainly did not come with a monthly fee.

Decides to give buyers one week to either start paying a monthly fee or see the devices bricked.

They may claim that data security is one of their core values but it’s pretty clear that honesty isn’t, and if they can’t be trusted on the latter why would anyone believe that they could be trusted on the former, given they have made very clear that they are willing to screw their customers over in exchange for money.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Pity honestly wasn't also on that list...

They may claim that data security is one of their core values but it’s pretty clear that honesty isn’t, and if they can’t be trusted on the latter why would anyone believe that they could be trusted on the former

I’d have loved to be in that meeting room, both to hear why anyone thought this was a good idea, and of course to quote Margin Call at them: "If you do this, you will kill the market for years. It’s over. You will never sell anything to any of those people ever again."

If this were really decided during COVID lockdown, it was probably a teleconference, and we may yet hear it. Either through a leak or through legal discovery, which someone’s gotta be planning by now.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Pity honestly wasn't also on that list...

"I’d have loved to be in that meeting room, both to hear why anyone thought this was a good idea"

I bet it goes along the lines of "we’re being sued for not paying our staff, let’s make it appear to those lawyers that we at least tried to recoup some revenue before we go under".

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Pity honestly wasn't also on that list...

"Was there no lawyer in the room to remind them that a conspiracy to defraud their customers would not be a good way to avoid a lawsuit?"

There probably was, but given that "lawyer" can include people like Richard Liebowitz and John Steele that doesn’t say much about the quality of their advice.

Bill Silverstein (profile) says:

Demand a refund!

Their agreement with the purchaser was to provide the product and the service for free with the price of the product.

Even if their shrinkwrap contract limits the terms to the contract to the shrinkwrap contract, then you can make a claim of unfair business practices and advertising fraud which usually contains a fee shifting and multiple damages.

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