Smartphones, once the great hope of the techno-utopians, now having reached a state of virtual ubiquity, are finding themselves displaced in the hearts of marketeers by the beautifully vague nonsense that is the “Internet of Things”. An early example of the hype around this is Google’s recent purchase of thermostat and smoke alarm maker Nest for $3.2bn. What could Google possibly be thinking?
Nest products certainly do look good, but like all things with large software components they are prone to subtle failures. Recently it emerged that errors in the installation process allow the thermostat to function correctly, except when it gets really damn cold outside. And they also make a smoke alarm that connects to the internet.
Don’t get me wrong — someone has to move on this first, but this is to home automation and that nebulous Internet of Things what early CD-ROM multimedia experiences are to the modern web, or less generously what Symbian was to our post-iPhone existence.
Yes, some of it might impress those you’re trying to impress, but we all kind of know it’s a bit useless, time consuming, overpriced, and begging to be replaced by something a bit more viable in the long term. Google are no idiots though, and clearly consider that first mover advantage to be worth $3.2bn.
Aside from reliability, what should really bother us about the vision of the Internet of Things that’s being propagated is that implicitly all these things are connected to cloud services, currently run by the manufacturers of the gadgets in question, which has a few nasty consequences. All the data about the gadget finds itself in the cloud, and thus in easy reach of any nefarious types, governments or otherwise
This isn’t simply a one way thing — altering thermostats remotely is something the Stasi would have loved to be able to do as part of their making people think they’re going mad program. NSA revelations that exes within the agency abused their positions (unofficially known as LOVEINT) would also take on a whole new level of fear if said ex could control practically everything in the house. Additionally the current proprietary nature of these devices means they don’t play well together. There aren’t yet enough vendors in the market for this to shake out properly, but being stuck buying all your home automation gadgetry from a single source is not something that’s going to work.
It’s no accident the people most excited by this are those selling the infrastructure. Cisco (makers of network routing equipment) see it as a way to sell more routers. Intel see it as a way to sell more servers. Cellphone operators see it as a way to sell more data usage. Google see it as a way to get more data into their systems and more to control via Google Now. None of this is really of any interest to the end user at all. Exactly like the emergence of the World Wide Web eclipsing the at the time vastly more sophisticated but less interesting world of CD-ROM, we won’t witness the true era of non-marketing speak Intenet of Things until someone does away with the cloud and big data aspects of it, and cuts to the core of what end users, that ultimately pay for this stuff, really want.
Nigel Birkenshaw runs Atomirex Technologies.
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