Fear & loathing in the internet of things

I’ve been asked by BLN to come to Cambridge and give another talk at IOT Forum one of the best events on #iot in the world along with Thingscon. This’ll be my third time there and this blog post is I suppose the prep work for that talk. For the past 6 months, I’ve been seeing an interesting change of mood amongst internet of things commentators and could-be consumers. We started 2014 in such a positive light, CES was full of interesting new product ideas, “The Year of the Internet of Things” some said and Google had just bought Nest too! But then nothing else really happened. No really big consumer acquisitions were made, just B2B ones. And large corporations were latching on to one of the least credible, but sexier applications of connected technologies: wearables. So last month at CES we ended up with a show full of wearables and little excitement. Most consumers haven’t bought one yet and I’m sure they’re already tired of reading about them, even before the “Watch” comes out in April. When people don’t believe in something, they start nit picking. So for the past 4 months we’re being bombarded with the privacy, security & interoperability implications of connected products and how it’s all just a terrible idea. And quickly it’s clear that a wave of “meh” has just crashed onto technology journalists before anything really happened. So I thought I’d dissect this a little and give them reasons to care, still, about what may be emerging.

1. 10 reasons why the internet of things will fail…

…is the most common title for most articles, but this simply doesn’t work that way. Firstly, internet of things isn’t something that fails like a car runs out of batteries. It’s like saying that industrialisation is failing. “Some applications of connected technologies may not match user needs” may be a better way of describing it. When, in business school, we talk about 80% of SMEs failing within the first 2 years, we don’t question the environment they try to work in. So why should we say that the internet of things is an area not worth working in? It’s just another industry, where some will succeed and others will fail because they’ve understood how to develop a connected product that their customers want to buy. In so many ways, it’s really just business as usual, just with new technologies in the mix.

2. Only interoperability will make the internet of things succeed

This is sweet. If I walk into the average home, the only commonality is the fact that they all can be plugged into sockets, and some need batteries to operate. Every time I buy a television, I need a new remote for it, I can’t use the old one. There are plenty of examples of lack of interoperability that force consumers into buying more, discarding more.  We have created the perfect machine for mindless consumption which is what gets some organisations interested in the internet of things. Another way of selling more of their things, with hopefully minimal impact on manufacturing processes. So they join #iot consortiums and try to figure out how to interoperate with companies that aren’t competitors. That’s not what I want as a consumer. I want to be able to 3D print spare parts for my broken washing machine. I want an API for my dishwasher so I can actually tell how much water it uses versus hand washing. I want to be able to get a quote for a new boiler from the internal state of my existing boiler by pressing a button that will put a call out to builders in the area. I don’t want a smart home, I don’t want home automation, I want things that work better because they understand the digital ecology they now exist in. We don’t need interoperability to advance further, we need bolder, better user interactions and for large FMG and white goods manufacturers to take risks and offer more imaginative, open services. And yes technical interoperability will help but I really think it’s something a lot of companies are hiding behind while they craft their global product strategy.

3. Don’t wait for another Google. 

I wouldn’t wait for another Google acquisition in this space for a while or anyone big for that matter. People are sitting on their hands, waiting for the next Pebble. The rogue team that puts out a killer app. The best ideas I see are 2-3 people teams in the UK & Europe with no access to funding, just bootstrapping their way through the next few months. I just hope they can hold on for a little longer, the investment market will open up, as incubators start to specialise and design school programs get better connected to industry. I hope they just keep calm and carry on. Everyone’s eyes are on them after all.

4. Privacy!

Considering we can’t even begin to convince people to not use 12345 as a password online, I think we can assume we’ll have problems with any technology that introduces more passwords. So there, maybe we should go hide in the countryside where there’s no 3G or wifi. Or just assume shit will happen and prepare for it for when it does.

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designswarm

Founder of designswarm & the Good Night Lamp. Ex CEO of Tinker London, Head of Bulb Labs till May 2019.

2 thoughts on “Fear & loathing in the internet of things”

  1. Wearables! Meh! So spot on. The challenges of designing, prototyping, marketing and then rapidly scaling production for hardware products that are essentially fashion items are huge yet there seems to be a huge amount of false hope that this will become a giant industry and a great chance for a swathe of startups. Even if the iWatch is a huge success, this does not mean that ‘Wearables’ are a thing that will present big opportunities for entrepreneurs in the hardware space. Far more likely it will offer opportunities for app developers.

    It will take time to put IoT in the home and lots of people are wrestling with the challenges that this presents. Of course, there needs to be some way of connecting devices simply in the home but the average consumer will need to have something that is simple and just works that other things connect in to. Will the hub be something that is bundled with your WiFi and Internet connection, something like Hive or your smartphone? Not clear yet and while some people talk endlessly about standards, the fact is that standards are imposed by the winners in any market.

    The most interesting opportunities we see in IoT at the moment are in Smart Cities (in the broadest sense – utilities, infrastructure, buildings etc), and in Manufacturing. It might not be as exciting as wearables but it is having significant impact and making money.

    Thanks for the shout out for IoT Forum. Really happy to have you back!

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