There recently seems to be a lot of talk online about the “internet of things”. The principle behind the “internet of things” is that all the devices in your household are connected to the internet. The classic example of this is a refrigerator that lets you know when you need to buy more milk. A lot of people seem to forget that we’ve had this technology around for a good 10-15 years. This isn’t something new. So why hasn’t it taken off?
I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent here, but stick with me.
This is a Swiss army knife:
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)
A Swiss army knife is a pretty handy little thing. As you can see, it’s not just a knife. It’s a collection of small but usable tools – a knife, pair of scissors, saw, can opener, screw driver, etc. It’s the kind of thing that any Boy Scout would be delighted to have. A Swiss army knife allows a person to carry around a bunch of different tools with them, all in a nice, small form factor.
That being said, there are drawbacks. Like most other things in life, ‘there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’*. You aren’t likely going to use the saw a Swiss army knife to cut down a tree (or even prune a tree!), or use the screw driver to fix your car – unless there’s no alternative available. As great as it is, it’s no real substitute for the full-sized tool it replaces. So why do people buy them? It’s pretty simple: It provides an advantage. In this case, the advantage is in size and weight. There’s no way your average Boy Scout is going to carry around a full sized knife, a full sized saw, a set of screwdrivers, a can opener, and a pair of scissors in his pockets. Yes, it doesn’t work as well as the real sized tools, but it works well enough. The advantages it provides are greater than the disadvantages. As anyone who has ever been stranded on the side of the road can attest – a poor tool is better than no tool at all!
So how does this tie into the “internet of things”?
A lot of people seem to have the idea that everything is so much better when it is connected to the internet, like the example above of the fridge that tells you when you are low on milk. It might be pretty cool (no pun intended) to have your fridge tell you when you are low on milk – but that also means that it has to know what is put into it, and what is taken out. That could mean a sensor on the milk carton or jug, or it could mean that you have to swipe bar codes of things as you put them into or take them out the fridge. Either way, that sounds like it is going to be more of an inconvenience than what people are currently used to. It could also mean that the milk cartons are more expensive, if they have to include a sensor. In order for people to change the way they do things, the new way must offer some sort of advantage over the current way. That advantage must be greater than the disadvantages. Let’s face it – in general, people are lazy, and don’t like change. There are very few people who change things up for the sake of change. I’ve never heard of anyone waking up in the morning, and deciding to buy a different car (of similar vintage) for the sake of change. Usually, people switch products because the new product offers something better than the existing product. Perhaps that advantage is an peace of mind of switching to use a more environmentally friendly product. Maybe the new product is seen as being ‘cool’, and they subconsciously think that they will be held in higher regard if they use it. Maybe the new product costs less. Either way, there is almost always some sort of advantage.
So again, how does this tie into the “internet of things”? So far, it seems that almost all the internet connected devices offer little advantage over their existing counterparts. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of thought going into the design and use of these devices, other than “let’s connect it to the internet because we can!”.
So what needs to change before people start buying internet connected appliances? Simple: prove that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Show that life can somehow be better/easier/happier by using these networked devices. For example:
- Get your houseplants can now remind you that you need to water them. (The advantage being that you kill less houseplants, the disadvantage being the low cost of a sensor in the plant and the inconvenience of having to replace a small battery once a year).
- Have your clothes washer or drier text you when the wash is done, so you don’t forget you left it in there. (The advantage being that you don’t forget at 10:00 pm that your pajamas are still sopping wet, and are sitting in the washing machine. The disadvantage being the increased cost of the machine, and potential security concerns).
I, for one, don’t ever plan on buying an internet connected toaster. I see absolutely no advantage that such an appliance would have over a regular toaster.
To those of you who are considering creating an internet connected device, please ask yourself: Does this device provide some sort of advantage over the current device? if so, does the advantage outweigh the disadvantage? Do your (potential and current) customers agree with you?
Also, fridge and freezer manufacturers: Why the heck haven’t you invested more in developing cheaper/safer ways of creating aerogels? An aerogel fridge would be absolutely amazing with regards to efficiency and weight. Heck, even something twice as dense as an aerogel would make an amazing insulator on a fridge. I’d much rather spend an extra $500 on a more efficient fridge than one that reminds me when I need milk.
*Or TANSTAAFL for short.