The Internet of things: Nest firmware auto-update disabled my thermostat


When I opened the door to my apartment a blast of hot air blew into my face not the usual icy cool air that I’ve programmed my Internet connected Nest thermostat to deliver at 5pm. I immediately knew something was wrong, my apartment which I like to keep cool during the brutally hot Austin summer was hot like a sauna. The clue, my super cool looking Nest which shows the current temperature on its blue and white round LCD screen was instead showing a little question mark.

My first thought was that my Nest thermostat had crashed and needed to be reset. I walked over to the beautiful little round wheel and dialed into the Nest settings. After a few clicks the Nest was restarting. Sophisticated hardware like the Nest runs an operating system also called “firmware” which coordinates a lot of the function of the device. Sometimes there are bugs in the firmware which cause the device to go into a bad state. Cycling the power often sets things right by putting the device back into a known good state.

As soon as my Nest restart I heard the whirl of the air conditioning fans spin up followed by a blast of cool air. The Nest question mark error was gone and things seemed to be working. My Nest had never experienced a problem over the course of the last year so I guess I was due for for some sort of issue. I should be good to go for another year right? Wrong.

Over the course of the next few days I’d find my Nest disconnected from the network, in an error state and my condo very hot. After each reset it would go back to working normally so it was unlikely a hardware problem. I pulled up the Nest support page and using their knowledge base I found an article that sort of described my problem. It described a condition where when the internal battery inside the Nest was low, the thermostat would disconnect from Wifi and throw up an error message. That didn’t make much sense because my Nest is connected to a power source so how would its internal battery ever run low? The fix for this issue according to the article was to reset the Nest which obviously hasn’t been working for me.

I decided to take a look at the Nest community site to see if other Nest users had been complaining and sure enough I found a thread talking about how the most recent firmware update caused intermittent connectivity problems for some users. At first I didn’t think this would apply to me because I haven’t updated my Nest since I bought it but as I read through the thread I realized that the Nest automatically updates its own firmware and it does so without notifying you.

It is not uncommon for devices to automatically update themselves, my Verizon mobile phone does it all the time when loads in the locations of the closest cellular towers. This is known as a PRL update and when it fails or if there is an issue it doesn’t disable my phone. When doing a more serious update to my phone’s firmware or operating system it asks for permission because a failure could disable the device. Asking for permission has long been the standard for updating hardware firmware and the Nest apparently has decided to ignore it.

There are many reasons for asking permission before performing an action which could disable the Nest. For one, lets say that the Queen of England is staying at my house and I need the temperature to be exact while she is here. I wouldn’t want to risk any sort of situation which could cause her to be uncomfortable. I want to be able to choose when to take that risk which is why the Nest auto-update behavior is so troubling.

As of the date I wrote this article Nest Labs hasn’t responded to the angry users on their community website who’ve been affected by this auto-update behavior. For now I’m using a workaround that another user posted to the site and I’m hoping that future versions of the Nest prompt for firmware updates instead of automatically installing them.

Published by joshkerr

Josh is an 8x startup founder and angel investor.

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