The Internet of Things is shaping up to be a frustrating mess for consumers. Need proof? Just look at the technology we already use. Take interoperability: While vastly improved over years past, most of the devices, apps, and software we have do not communicate or play well together.
Extending this current situation to the development of the IoT, it’s not unreasonable to assume that even when IoT devices become as commonplace as smart phones, tablets, and laptops are today, a host of competing platforms, networking standards, and data-transfer protocols will perpetuate this problem exponentially.
“Most current standardization activities are confined to very specific verticals and represent islands of disjointed and often redundant development,” the IEEE’s web page says about its efforts to develop an IoT reference architecture called P2413, which itself is made up of hundreds of separate standards.
Worse still is when things do work together, but only under certain and often elusive conditions; conditions that can change minute to minute so that, literally, what worked the last time you used your smart TV, like the volume control linked to your surround sound system, no longer functions.
So, what do you do? You grab yet another remote and try that? Do you restart the TV or maybe the sound system – or both? Perhaps a factory reset to upload new firmware is in order? All the while, the game you were about to watch goes on without you.
Or maybe, because standards and protocols fall out of favor and use over time, you never will be able to fix the problem. What then? Do you have to buy a new TV? A new sound system?
This is what Jean-Louis Gassée, a venture investor at Allegis Capital, calls the “basket of remotes” problem. Instead of a universal remote to control all of your myriad A/V equipment, most people just keep all their remotes handy. Why? Because it’s just that much easier than programming a universal remote.
“For consumers, technology should get out of the way – it’s a means, not an end,” he wrote in his blog, MondayNote.com. “Consumers don’t have the mindset or training of IT techies, they don’t have the time or focus to build a mental representation of a network of devices, their interactions, and failure modes.”
A less complex but no less taxing example from today is Roku and HBO. A known issue that appears to have no easy answer is HBO’s constant demand to re-subscribe to Roku. It could be a device-level issue, an issue with Roku the service, or HBOGo’s app, or it could be networking issue. If you Google the issue, there are work-arounds, but these work for some people and not for others. (Again, limited guidance from Roku and HBO leaves users to scratch their heads or wade through forums full of dubious advice.) The only real solution is to keep a Web browser handy so you can re-up your subscription every time you want to watch a movie.
Granted, this is a decidedly first-world problem of little import. But what happens when IoT devices are more mission critical? Take health monitors, for example. Fitbit is currently being sued in California for not keeping accurate track of wearers’ heart rates; a critical metric for those with heart conditions.
One CIO, who had an early version of a connected home, found that when he armed his security system, the garage door opened. It turned out to be a mis-set dip-switch. What would have happened if a software update did this while he and his family were away on vacation? Could the neighbors have closed the garage manually? Whom could he call? Whom could his neighbors call? Most likely, there would be multiple vendors involved, from the software developers to the hardware makers, each claiming the other is responsible. This is an all-to-common problem today.
A Cold Nest
Users of Nest, the connected home thermostat maker bought by Google for $3.2 billion, recently experienced a similar scenario. According to the New York Times, in January, just as winter descended on the northern hemisphere, a bug in a software update shut down people’s furnaces. All across the United States (and presumably everywhere else Nest was in use) crying babies signaled weary parents that the heat was off.
Even though Nest worked hard to solve the problem, it wasn’t simple or easy: “The fix can require customers to follow a nine-step procedure to manually restart the thermostat, which involves detaching the device from the wall, charging it with a USB cable for 15 minutes, reattaching it to the wall, pressing a series of buttons, charging it again for at least an hour, and then …” If that didn’t work, Nest would send out an electrician to your home, according to the Times.
In other words, if you, the customer, couldn’t figure it out, it was going to be a long, cold wait for help.
Other equally perplexing examples abound. Mike Arman and his wife in Oak Hill, Florida, call their 2013 Mazda3 “Marvin the Paranoid Mazda” for its propensity to randomly lock itself.
“The car needs a psychiatrist, not a mechanic,” Arman wrote in an email. “The car part is fine. It runs well and gets good gas mileage. It is all the electronic toys and crap (technical term), which will ensure the early demise of the vehicle and necessitate replacement.”
Some believe the problem will solve itself because consumers will vote with their wallets to ensure IoT devices will function as advertised.
“I think [the] premise is based on the wrong assumption that we will embrace these technologies before the bugs are worked out,” said Jay Dwivedi, president of Xinvest Consultants. “The more likely scenario, based on how we have embraced other disruptive technologies, is that it will be slow and only after the word of mouth spreads that the technology is reliable.”
While this likely will be the way it plays out in the long term, it does nothing to alleviate the short-term pain of finding out that you didn’t pick a winning gadget the last time you bought a thermostat, a toaster, a coffee maker, a refrigerator or, worse, a car, a home security system, baby monitor, or home surveillance system.
IoT vendors and companies that plan to supply the IoT ecosystem with products have a different take on the situation, believing that centralized hubs or device-management dashboards could solve many of these issues. Others think a third-party provider of support may be the answer.
“There will be an opportunity for an enterprising company to step in and offer blanket support for IoT, to provide value so consumers don’t have to coordinate multiple layers of troubleshooting,” said Praveen Puri, owner of Puri Consulting.
But if the IoT predictions come true and the world is awash in billions of connected devices all trying to communicate and interoperate, is there really a single technology that can unify them all? If history is any guide, then the answer will be a resounding “No!” But, again, if history is any guide, it won’t matter: We still will have to deal with an avalanche of trail an error as companies big and small cash in on what is sure to be the next wave of trendy products designed to enhance our lives and make them “easier.”
If all this pain and consumer suffering is to be avoided, then the IoT industry will need to focus some of its maniacal energies not just on products, but experiences, said Hossein Rahnama, CEO and founder of Flybits and an MIT Technology Review “35 Innovators Under 35” award recipient. Smart companies will focus on users and use-cases, not devices.
“The successful companies in IoT,” said Rahnama, “will be those which focus on experience management and experience curation, not necessarily on the protocol or hardware layers, but rather on creating types of heterogeneous environments, regardless of whether or not they are on an Apple Watch, a Motorola sensor, or a home monitoring system.”
It is still early days for IoT, of course, but for anyone old enough to remember “programmable” VCRs and LCD clocks that were added to every conceivable electronic device just because manufacturers could, it’s probably best to hold on to your favorite toaster for a little while longer.
Now a freelance writer, in a former, not-too-distant life, Allen Bernard was the managing editor of CIOUpdate.com and numerous other technology websites. Since 2000, Allen has written, assigned and edited thousands of articles that focus on intersection of technology and business. As well as content marketing and PR, he now writes for Data Informed and other high-quality publications. Originally from the Boston area, Allen now calls Columbus, Ohio, home. He can be reached at 614-937-2316 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please follow him on Twitter at @allen_bernard1, on Google+ or on LinkedIn.
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