After Months Of Incompetence, 'Smart' Pet Feeder Company PetNet Falls Apart, Blames COVID-19

from the dumb-tech-is-smart-tech dept

Back in February, $130 "smart" pet feeders from a company named PetNet simply stopped working. When customers reached out to the company to complain, they hit a complete and total brick wall in terms of functioning customer service. Customers say emails and phone calls weren't returned (or wound up undeliverable), and the company simply refused to answer annoyed customer inquiries on Twitter or Facebook.

Fast forward to late March and April and PetNet customers once again complained to outlets like Ars Technica that the company's products didn't work and its customer support was still nowhere to be found. Customers who complained were now being shoveled to a third party contractor with 16 followers on Twitter which, like the company that employed it, didn't appear capable of offering any help:

"Users looking for support received messages directing them to a third-party site called Tier One Success. Tier One bills itself as "simplified customer support to help meet your Smart Home needs," but it appears to have almost no online presence outside of the link sent to Petnet device owners. Its only external communication is a Twitter account with 16 followers. The last time any message was posted to that account, in July 2019, Tier One indicated that it exclusively supported Petnet products and had not yet expanded to customer support for any other smart home device."

Cool. Once the pandemic hit, Petnet apparently saw its exit, and is now informing its customers that the end is nigh. In one email, it lauds the fact that the company shuttered its brick and mortar offices as a result of COVID-19:

  • We have furloughed 100% of our remaining staff
  • We have ceased all future product development, including bug fixes
  • We have turned off all non-infrastructure related expenses
  • We have terminated our office lease and are working remotely
  • We have applied for all available CARES stimulus funding
  • But some readers noted that the company's office had been empty and available to lease since at least last October.

    Meanwhile, none of the "smart" features of the company's pet feeders appear to be working on either version of the company's top models, and getting anything resembling customer support is still impossible for many. Given 20 seconds of effort and a $1 metal bowl would work just as well as Petnet's current offerings, it's yet another example of how in the "smart" device era the smarter choice is quite often dumber, older technology.

    Filed Under: blame, covid-19, failures, iot, smart appliances, smart pet feeder
    Companies: petnet


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    • icon
      tz1 (profile), 5 May 2020 @ 2:21pm

      Hi, I'm Chucky, do you want to play?

      The problem is not so much "smart" tech, but locked down tech that is captive to a vendor's infrastructure. I have a few pan/tilt cams and had to PiHole the phone homes and tweak my firewalls and port forwards, but I have them connected. But it was a real pain. The FSF years ago published "Defective by Design" identifying this. The only hiccup MIGHT be NAT since both you phone and the device might be behind translators, but Skype and Wireguard apparently can work. There should be a few TCP/UDP forwarding sites the companies pay for but are configurable and so anyone could use them, maybe for a modest fee.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 May 2020 @ 2:21pm

      SARS-CoV-2 will be the scapegoat for unrelated failures for years to come. If there was a stock ticker I could invest in for "things SARS-CoV-2 had nothing to do with but was blamed for anyway" this would be the time to go long.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 7 May 2020 @ 6:32pm

        Re:

        SARS-CoV-2 will be the scapegoat for unrelated failures for years to come.

        Shit, I figured it might be like a week before you were proven right. Nope. 2 days:

        In short, the company needs cash. "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," the company writes—presumably an allusion to the COVID-19 crisis.

        They haven't announced a shutdown, but come on, a free service cutting people off if they don't pay within a week? "You will never sell anything to any of those people ever again."

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Qwertygiy, 5 May 2020 @ 2:32pm

      If it won't work without access to a server that you can't host yourself, it won't work for long.

      Gamers have known this for well over a decade. We've watched our sports game multiplayer servers get shuttered in favor of next year's version long before EA gained its reputation. We've watched our MMOs and MOBAs go dark -- sometimes with decent third-party replacement servers, like with Myst Online; but far more commonly with nothing at all. And I shouldn't even get started on apps and app-like Facebook games... But all of that is purely digital. A lot of it can reasonably be called "access to services".

      But if there is a physical product, if the product's primary function requires the use of a server, and if it doesn't reasonably allow the use of third-party-hosted servers... in my opinion, that should be considered planned obsolescence of the product, and a form of consumer fraud.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 May 2020 @ 2:35pm

        Re:

        As long as they can continue to convince people to pay a subscription for continued product functionality they slither under the fraud bar.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 May 2020 @ 2:48pm

        Re:

        But if there is a physical product, if the product's primary function requires the use of a server, and if it doesn't reasonably allow the use of third-party-hosted servers.

        Their real business is rental of the server services. Along with that business model goes proprietary interfaces, and use of copyright to protect their monopoly on providing the service.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        ECA (profile), 5 May 2020 @ 4:24pm

        Re:

        Hallelujah,
        Pass the buck..

        Wow, someone that knows the old tech problems..SAME thing different format.
        Even in the last 20 years, its the same over and over, and its like THEY DIDNT NOTICE it the last time..or understand the Main problem, you need online 24/7 servers that will work forever...if the game/product is any good.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 6 May 2020 @ 1:22am

        Re:

        I agree that companies should provide the third party server capability once the official version is no longer available, but no game that depends on external services will run indefinitely.

        "We've watched our MMOs and MOBAs go dark"

        With MMOs you're paying for monthly access to servers, and any related updates to the client software to continue to be developed. They're going to go dark when the amount they get from subscriptions is significantly lower than the cost of running the servers and providing updates. You're hopelessly naive if you expect them to run forever, double so if it's a free to play title.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 5 May 2020 @ 2:42pm

      That's some mighty fine whine there...

      You can practically taste the sours grapes.

      'We're shutting down not because our product was crap and our customers service was even worse but because of the pandemic! Had nothing to do with us, nothing at all!'

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 May 2020 @ 3:07pm

      One thing I'd like to point out. If the product was designed with libre software (that is libre/free software as defined by the free software foundation) customers could either provide the support themselves, or they could hire somebody to do it for them.
      Or a startup could fill that role (all of which is effectively value-add to the OEM).

      I've rarely seen anyone point this out despite Techdirt covering "theft" of property like this.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        James Burkhardt (profile), 5 May 2020 @ 5:18pm

        Re:

        I have. Right here just because you haven't seen the suggestion, doesn't mean it hasn't happened.

        I admittedly don't remember if Techdirt has thrown up that flag specifically before. But it is the natural answer of how to build a internet enabled device without lock-in. Its also a natural extension of the [protocols not platforms solution(https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20190825/21540442853/protocols-not-platforms-technologica l-approach-to-free-speech.shtml) Mike has been suggestiong for social media. Heck, several years ago Techdirt did an article on the way cloud storage failed to live up to its premise where Mike explicitly argues that cloud storage should have been about individually opwned cloud buckets linking into interoperable cloud services rather than proprietary services.

        I think you just aren't reading. Techdirt may never have suggested it for this specific situation, but its a clean extension of everything they argue for.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 5 May 2020 @ 6:40pm

          Re: Re:

          Hmmm. Did you perhaps link to the wrong comment/article? The comment I see when I follow that link does not directly call out libre software, the FSF or anything directly related.

          I also said "rarely." I know it has been mentioned before, both by me and other people (at least one comment does stick out in my mind, calling out LineageOS as a possible phone OS, I suspect you may have even been the author, but I don't happen to have a link to the page to check).

          And you say:

          Techdirt may never have suggested it for this specific situation, but its a clean extension of everything they argue for.

          And I absolutely agree. However I find it odd that people rarely mention the software ecosystem and the corresponding social movement that espouse natural extensions of the ideas they are pointing forth.

          Further more, my entire point is relevant because from what I have seen of Techdirts's audiance, many are unlikely to be aware of the nature of libre software, or the ideology behind it.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            James Burkhardt (profile), 5 May 2020 @ 10:37pm

            Re: Re: Re:

            You are right, I drew a wider conclusion then you were making. i was talking about hardware communications protocols, not software. And the Bluetooth standard isn't a free standard. But it is an open one. My point being that since the HRM used an open communications standard, and app-neutral communications existed in the target market, there was no reason the HRM had to fail when a specific vendor stopped offering their app. I was drawing a similar philisophical point, and apologize for conflating it with yours.

            Free software has been discussed in these pages before. And again, Mike's protocols not platforms approach covers exactly what you are saying. I know mike has argued for a broader philisophical platform than the focus on software, and I think he has effectively argued for the libre software solution even if he doesn't say the words because he is focused on broader approaches than just fix software. I've gotten the impression that he doesn't like software being under either copyright or patent. And during DMCA anti-circumvention discussions, the way proprietary software prevents you from owning the hardware is at the forefront. He is arguing for libre software, but perhaps not using those words, since they tie to a specific policy proposal. Mike seems to try to avoid specific policy proposals, generally talking in broader questions of goals and the way to move toward them, but let actual policy makers iron out policy. And really, Coming to the comments and saying "hey, you know, if these vendors used libre software it wouldn't matter!" its the most no shit sherlock kind of answer.

            Given the Free software foundation has come up a number of times in techdirt hsitory, and the seeming longevity of techdirt's audiance, its not fair to believe people don't know who they are. We defend the concept against trolls on a regular basis as their failure to understand it is a common basis of attack.

            Moreover, your original post didn't serve to introduce the concept to the audiance, only to say that the concept exists. You aren't going into either the nature or the ideology. So its a weird hill to die on that nobody is talking about it, since you really aren't either.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2020 @ 6:55am

              Re: Re: Re: Re:

              You are right, I drew a wider conclusion then you were making. [...] I was drawing a similar philisophical point, and apologize for conflating it with yours.

              I think I agree in principal with what I believe your point is (that open hardware and protocols are equally as important as open software). I apologize if it sounded like I disagreed. However, sadly I don't know of any significant movement/organization pushing for open hardware, and my point was that for the software side of things there already is a major community and ecosystem for that.

              I know mike has argued for a broader philisophical platform than the focus on software, and I think he has effectively argued for the libre software solution even if he doesn't say the words because he is focused on broader approaches than just fix software. I've gotten the impression that he doesn't like software being under either copyright or patent.

              I think it would be interesting to see what Mike exact thoughts on that are. You mention software not being covered by copyright or patent. I think the libre/free software movement has actually show a flaw in that (when taken at face value).
              In fact I would argue that copyleft copyright licenses are a greater public good/service that if the work was never covered by copyright. The reason for this is that copyleft ensure that people who get the work, and entitled to the ability to recreate it/modify it/create new works from it, thus in line with the constitutional purpose of copyright. In the case of no copyright, there would be no obligation to share the source, which means even though works would be "public domain", in reality they would not because there would be less or even no incentive to release the source code (so people modifying the work would have to reverse engineer it, which can be a real hindrance to creating derived works).

              All of that said, I would like to put a thought I had here about changes to copyright (for software only, and some of this logic doesn't apply quite the same for non-software).
              I would propose that proprietary software copyright be very much limited, say to five years. I would also argue that this is not the terror some copyright maximalists would have us believe. Largely because in five years time bugs and security vulnerabilities will be found and patched in that software. Of course that patched/updated version would be new, derived works, and their copyright term would expire after the initial works copyright.

              For other works I would say that length of copyright for the software should be somewhat proportional to the nature of the copyleft license. This, of course because software people copyleft helps ensure more people are able to create and share more works (again being fully inline with constitutional foundation for the power to create copyright laws). However I would say the length should still max out at something small, maybe 14 years.

              And really, Coming to the comments and saying "hey, you know, if these vendors used libre software it wouldn't matter!" its the most no shit sherlock kind of answer.

              If I understand your argument here, it is that the greater portion of Techdirts audience is already familiar with libre software.

              You aren't going into either the nature or the ideology. So its a weird hill to die on that nobody is talking about it, since you really aren't either.

              My perception of libre software, in the context of Techdirt, is kind of the elephant in the room. I frequently think of it while reading Techdirt, but I rarely see people mention it. In light of the previous addressed comment, I guess I never got the impression most of the community was familiar with the subject, and it that case yeah it was a very stupid thing for me to even mention.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Bobvious, 5 May 2020 @ 4:27pm

      I'd say it's time to Tier them a new One

      because it seems PetNet has slipped away to Tijuana.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 May 2020 @ 7:41pm

      Seems like a lot of lies

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 May 2020 @ 8:37pm

      Who is the user base?

      If you're going away for an extended period of time, yes, maybe this sort of product could be beneficial. If you could trust it, it would keep your pets fed each day while you're not home. There are still other options like boarding, friends or neighbours that you might be able to consider.

      But if you're using this sort of product simply because you're too lazy or forget to feed your dog each day... then you should not have a pet in the first place.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        nasch (profile), 11 May 2020 @ 10:10am

        Re: Who is the user base?

        If you could trust it, it would keep your pets fed each day while you're not home. There are still other options like boarding, friends or neighbours that you might be able to consider.

        It would be a bad idea to trust your pet's life to this thing so any responsible pet owner should have someone checking on the pets anyway. At which point there is no purpose to the smart feeder.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          PaulT (profile), 12 May 2020 @ 12:22am

          Re: Re: Who is the user base?

          There's certainly a use case for people who have to go away on short notice and can't use a kennel/cattery or arrange neighbours in time. But, then, there's non-"smart" automatic feeders available at a fraction of the price, and it's fairly cruel to leave a pet unattended for an extended time without someone going over to at least walk them/clean out their litter box or cage anyway.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 6 May 2020 @ 1:17am

      They might have a point. The product appears to be a silly novelty product aimed at people with more money than sense. With 30+ million Americans suddenly unemployed, many more furloughed and a general collapse of the economy, even those with zero sense are finding themselves without the money.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nhtechguy (profile), 11 May 2020 @ 12:23pm

      PetNet is coming back online!

      To anyone still checking the comments here, PetNet is coming back online. I received an email from petnet stating that my "Gen 1 Feeders" were back online. I restarted my two devices and logged into the app and they both work now without issue.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 12 May 2020 @ 12:23am

        Re: PetNet is coming back online!

        Cool. For how long?

        That's the main issue here, you can't guarantee that it won't happen again, and when it does your purchase isn't worth what you paid for it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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