Peloton’s New Tread+ Problem Is a Reminder That You Don’t Really Own Your Connected Gadgets

Peloton’s New Tread+ Problem Is a Reminder That You Don’t Really Own Your Connected Gadgets

If you paid more than $US4,000 ($5,130) for Peloton’s Tread+, you’d expect that treadmill to be yours. And it is. Kind of. But the thing you should know about connected devices is that ownership isn’t as straightforward as simply buying a gadget.

Yesterday, Peloton notified Tread+ owners that they would no longer be able to use the “Just Run” feature without subscribing to Peloton’s $US40 ($51) monthly membership. “Just Run” was a mode that let you use the Tread+ without Peloton’s classes, and, crucially, without paying for that subscription. The reason Peloton gave for the change was its Tread Lock software update, which added a 4-digit passcode to prevent unauthorised access. Tread Lock is part of Peloton’s voluntary recall for the Tread+, following numerous reports of injuries and in one case, a child’s death. The response on Twitter has not been kind. Some went as far as to call this ransom and extortion under the guise of improving consumer safety.

“Unfortunately, Tread Lock is not yet available without a Peloton Membership, which means Tread+ owners without a subscription cannot access Just Run at this time,” a Peloton spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email. “We waived three months of All-Access Membership for all Tread+ owners.”

“We understand that this is an inconvenience for some and are working on updates to Tread Lock that will allow us to make Tread Lock and Just Run available without a Peloton Membership,” the spokesperson went on to say.

Technically, no Tread+ customers at the moment have lost the Just Run feature as everyone’s been comped three months of membership, and it sounds like it will return sans membership. The problem here is the principle of a company removing a feature from a device you’ve already paid for outright.

It’s hard to feel bad for people who can drop more than $US4,000 ($5,130) for a treadmill and chose to do so precisely because it was Peloton’s hardware. You can buy a cheaper treadmill and still access Peloton’s treadmill classes via a much more affordable $US13 ($17) digital-only subscription. However, it is a reminder that while you might “own” the hardware, you don’t own the software on connected gadgets at all. If the hardware can’t run without the software, well, this is the major pitfall of the Internet of Things.

Technically, the Peloton Tread+ is a treadmill that’s meant to do one thing: Play Peloton content. Unless you jailbreak your Peloton, you can’t watch Netflix or listen to your own music, as you might with some of the fancier treadmills at the gym — at least, not without voiding the warranty. If a manufacturer changes the software of your device, well, it’s their software. Generally speaking, it’s good security hygiene to update your software to the latest version whenever they’re made available. (This is true with Pelotons, too, which recently had two security issues.) So you can’t legally modify the Tread+’s software and it’s not a good idea to forgo updates. That means you can either ask for a refund or deal with it. At the end of the day, you’re actually just licensing the hardware — even if you paid to own it.

Connected fitness equipment is especially locked down based on subscription. You can’t use Fitness+ on a SoulCycle Bike’s screen. Hell, on that bike you can’t even access the option to watch Netflix or Disney+ without having an Equinox+ subscription. Without Equinox+, you have a glorified laundry rack. Most people pick connected fitness equipment based on service, not hardware, because there’s not a ton of difference between one treadmill and another. It also means that if you pick a connected fitness service that goes under, you end up with an expensive piece of junk you can’t use. The most extreme example is when Flywheel owners’ bikes were bricked thanks to Peloton, which had sued its competitor for being too similar. If you didn’t want to take Peloton’s offer to get a free refurbished Peloton Bike, you just lost your money.

It’s not fair, and you can thank Section 1201 of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act in part. Section 1201 broadly states that it’s illegal to “circumvent” digital locks, and for decades, manufacturers have argued it means you don’t own the software that makes your gadgets work. For example, in 2015, General Motors told the Copyright Office that right to repair activists “incorrectly conflate ownership of a vehicle with ownership of the underlying computer software in a vehicle.” They’re not the only ones either. Apple, John Deere, and several companies have made the same arguments over the years.

There have been several exemptions to Section 1201 since the DCMA came into effect in 1998. In 2018, the Copyright Office granted new exemptions that meant people could jailbreak voice assistant devices, as well as repair smartphones, home appliances, home systems, and motorised land vehicles. But while these exemptions were victories for consumers, they didn’t cover everything. Connected fitness equipment falls in a grey area, as it’s a relatively newer category.

To be honest, Peloton can do no wrong in the eyes of its staunchest fans. (If multiple injuries to children, pets, and users can’t deter them, what will?) While Peloton declined to send us the numbers, it’s probably safe to say the overwhelming majority of people with a Tread+ have one because they subscribe to Peloton’s classes. Peloton is bringing “Just Run” back to its treadmills, so this specific example isn’t the end of the world. It’s just worth noting that until legislation changes, when you buy a connected device, “ownership” isn’t always what you think it is.

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