Rob Enderle had a really bad experience last week.   Read about it here:

It happens that this experience came from Amazon.   In short, he had a payment dispute and they pulled a giant switch somewhere that turned off his Amazon Services.   All of them.

A few years back, I was in a meeting with Ray Ozzie, who scoffed at the device business because in the future, all that would matter would be the cloud.   I wasn’t so sure, but over time he’s being proven more right than wrong.

The Amazon Echo is the best example so far of this.  Amazon has published a step by step guide to building your own Echo ( I threw one together in my lab on the Microsoft Campus, and then frantically showed it to everyone I could find because it was the clearest example I’d ever seen of a cloud-centric device.   A bit of commodity hardware + frighteningly few lines of code, and suddenly you had a fully functional Echo device. Almost all of the intelligence and power is in the Amazon Cloud.

This has enormous benefits.   The client device is thin, simple, and reliable.   No device updates, cheap devices, and constantly improving feature sets.    It’s great!

But it does signal a huge change from the past. At the limit, you will no longer really own your devices. Without the services, the device is a paperweight, and the service provider becomes all powerful.

In the days of my youth, devices truly belonged to you, because they weren’t dependent on services.   Sony couldn’t disable my TV, Panasonic couldn’t turn off my stereo, Apple couldn’t silence my iPhone. PCs were part of this era; you bought the PC, it was yours, you controlled it and neither Dell nor Microsoft could mess with it without your permission.

This new era involves devices that are forever tethered to their service providers. My Echo is nothing without Amazon, My iPhone is a brick without Apple and T-Mobile, my home automation setup is manual without Samsung and Amazon.   Even PC is changing as Microsoft deploys Windows 10, which gets updated and is constantly tethered back to Microsoft whether you want it or not.

Again, this new model comes with a lot of benefits.   Microsoft argues these tethered PCs repair themselves, update themselves, and will be more reliable. My Amazon Echo costs $30 and includes amazing functionality. My iPhone includes amazing, cloud enabled features out of the box.

But it does mean these companies have huge power over me. Enderle’s experience illustrates this power; if Amazon shuts down your account, half of my house experiences a functionality “brown out”.   I know a lot of Amazon people and they are well meaning, customer-centric folks; but will that continue? What happens if they make a mistake?

It’s not just Amazon.  Some time ago, I had fraudulent use of my iTunes account and Apple threatened to shut down my account as suspect.  They insisted I should just create a new account! But…my account is where my backups reside, my iTunes history is, my ability to redownload apps, my family sharing plan…it would have crippled me for weeks as I reset everything. I negotiated a deal where my account is active, but my credit card is forever banned from iTunes.

There are other companies that have this kind of power over me.  My electric company controls my destiny, as does my trash removal service, and the water company.  But these are highly regulated public utilities, so there’s a balance of power.

We are entering an interesting new era where private companies have the power of public utilities.   I expect interesting – in both the positive, and negative senses – times ahead.