The Internet of Things close

David Hart
David Hart
In Musings, Apps
17th July 2013
The Internet of Things

Back in 2000, during the first dotcom boom, I was working at an Internet Incubator. One of the guys there invented a ‘joke’ business idea: effectively it was a chip that sat in cigarette boxes and as you ran low, would order you another box so you would never run out. He called the technology it would run on “Yellowtooth”. And pretty much the punch line was the extent and the reason for the idea.

But what he was describing was a classic, if not ridiculous, example of the Internet of Things: where objects in our daily lives are equipped with identifiers that could be tracked and managed by computers; where we could have interactions with objects remotely based on a real or predicted need.

In 2000, the idea that everyday things could be connected in this way had certainly been thought about and written about a lot, but there wasn’t much evidence of any of it actually happening for the person in the street. Today things have changed and the slightly futuristic vision of all of our things somehow being connected to us remotely sits somewhere between reality and the near-future.

For example, the company that fills up my oil tank (I live somewhere where the supply of mains gas is beyond man’s wit), is prepared to lease me a gauge that will remotely warn them (and me) when my oil is getting low and prompt them to come out and replenish the tank before it does.

I was at a pharmaceutical conference a month or so ago where someone was talking about Bluetooth-enabled syringes that are being used today that track when diabetics were taking their insulin, to monitor compliance.

What’s really driving the Internet of Things?

This pharmaceutical conference was interesting for another reason: the main purpose of the event was to discuss how pharmaceutical companies could get closer to their end users. If you manufacture Insulin, chances are the closest you get to the end-user is the GP.

Take a manufacturer of a dishwasher. They sell the dishwasher through a distributor. If it’s sold online, the distributor knows who bought it, but the manufacturer probably doesn’t (unless you filled in the warranty card and posted it off). And even if you did, what are the opportunities to really connect with the end-user, other than the time their dishwasher finally dies and they are looking to replace it.

In both these cases, the real drive is coming from the marketing department. Not because they want to give something of added value to their customers, but more because they want to be able to sell them more stuff, or understand them more so they can sell them more stuff. In other words, for someone making a refrigerator, the desire to somehow make that a ‘smart refrigerator’ that maybe warns you that your freezer’s not working, is driven more by a desire to know more about their customers in order to make more money out of them, rather than a desire to create cool apps that will improve every day lives.

Do we really need this stuff?

But for consumers, it is very much about having cool apps that will improve every day lives, so is some of the drive going to come from consumers themselves? The manufacturers of the diabetic Bluetooth syringe seemed most excited about the fact that they could build up a picture across the country of who was taking their insulin properly and who wasn’t. But as an individual user, do you really care? Yes, it’s nice that you are somehow helping medical research perhaps, but surely the thing that is most important to you is your own treatment.

Similarly, do you want the likes of Samsung or Smeg sending you an email via your fridge every afternoon to remind you to pick up some milk on the way home?

And in a world where we are becoming ever more worried about the minutiae of our daily lives being spewed onto the web and stored forever on the Cloud, how do we feel about a computer building up a picture of how we use our car, or how energy-efficient we are in our home? What about a computer knowing that we’ve left the house without closing a window?

The psychology around utility apps

If you think about the apps that you use on your smartphone, they (very) broadly fit into 4 categories: entertainment, learning/reference, content creation and utilities. My view is that, whilst people are happy to have a number of games etc to choose from on their phone, and are keen to get information from a variety of sources, when it comes to utilities, less is more. We don’t want 3 different ways to read emails, or 5 different methods of accessing our bank accounts. It probably explains why our most popular app, Tap and Say, is a universal phrasebook that allows you to switch between 11 languages: would you rather have one phrasebook for every language you think you would ever need on your phone, or 11 individual apps for each language?

Think again about the Internet of Things and how you manage your possessions via your mobile phone. On the face of it, being able to monitor all of your smart devices from one place sounds pretty cool: you’re on the train on the way home and you can whip out your phone and turn your oven on, switch on the porch light, restock your beer fridge, put some music on, check to see if you need to pick up anything from the shop on the way back. For people with OCD, this is like manna from heaven.

But then imagine that in order to do all this you might need to open your Samsung app for the fridge and your Bosch app for the oven, your Sonos app for the music and your NPower app for the light. Do you really want that? And do you really want to invite all of these brands onto your phone to flog you stuff?

Predictions

I think we will inevitably see everyday devices becoming ‘smart’ because the marketing departments will see the opportunities that regular contact with their end users will bring, and this will be the driving force. There are companies out there, such as Aylan Networks, who are poised to help manufacturers turn their products into connected devices.

However, I think consumers will only engage if they see specific benefits to them, rather than only providing brands with market intelligence or yet another way to flog them stuff.

Smart device manufacturers will have to allow the data they create to be available in the ways in which consumers want to interact with it: this may be via brand-specific apps, but may also be via 3rd party apps that seek to consolidate users’ device data into one single manageable app.

Or maybe the device manufacturers won’t even be the ones that really drive this after all and instead we’ll see 3rd party devices that convert an every day item into something connected. Products like The Tile, which allow you to track anything that you attach The Tile to, might be what really drives consumer adoption.

Who knows?

Personally, I like gadgets as much as the next man, but I also like to smell the milk to see if it’s off. I kind of resent the fact that I don’t know anyone’s telephone number off by heart any more and worry that not having to remember anything at all ever again will atrophy my brain. I like a bit of unpredictability, a bit of a challenge and I certainly don’t want to invite brands into the micro-management of my family life. But I’m also lazy and like the idea of offloading the mundane tasks that get in the way of having fun, so I’m guessing that I’ll be all over this when the time comes.