Stop mak­ing things we don’t want

Memo to in­ven­tors: most of us don’t need our tooth­brushes or forks con­nected to the In­ter­net

Toronto Star - - BUSINESS - PETER NOWAK SPE­CIAL TO THE STAR

In­ter­net of things? More like In­ter­net of use­less things, no?

Next to “wear­ables,” the In­ter­net of things — or IoT if we want to be cool about it — has been the next big thing in tech­nol­ogy since tablet sales started to slow. For the past few years, the hype has been about con­nect­ing ev­ery­thing to the In­ter­net, whether it’s re­frig­er­a­tors, lug­gage or even our pets.

The idea is that all these things gen­er­ate data, and if we can move that data around and ac­cess it when­ever we want, we’ll find new ways to make our lives bet­ter and more ef­fi­cient.

Based on that, the mar­ket fore­casts are enor­mous — 25 bil­lion con­nected things glob­ally by 2020, up from 4.9 bil­lion this year, ac­cord­ing to pro­jec­tions from re­search firm Gart­ner.

But on the con­sumer front, the flops keep mount­ing — In­ter­net-con­nected fork any­one? The IoT may have myr­iad in­dus­trial uses, but at home, where it mat­ters to the av­er­age Joe, the hype wave hasn’t saved us yet from the un­bear­able bur­den of remembering not to eat our din­ner too quickly or, ugh, hav­ing to flip on the light switch at night.

This might be be­cause many of the peo­ple who are bring­ing us the “things” are think­ing more about hit­ting it big with sur­pris­ing and novel prod­ucts than they are about en­hanc­ing our lives.

“The mass mar­ket is look­ing for some­thing that has a re­ally clear value propo­si­tion and ben­e­fit,” says Claire Row­land, a U.K.-based prod­uct con­sul­tant and lead au­thor of De­sign­ing Con­nected Prod­uct: UX De­sign for the In­ter­net of Things. “The money and ef­fort need to jus­tify it.”

One of the big is­sues de­sign­ers are fac­ing in mak­ing their prod­ucts use­ful are the net­works they con­nect to. Great progress has been made in in­creas­ing speeds and lag time over the past few decades, but wired and wire­less net­works — which in­cludes Blue­tooth and Wi-Fi tech­nolo­gies — still can’t match ana­log, un­con­nected al­ter­na­tives all of the time.

Blue­tooth tooth­brushes, for ex­am­ple, usu­ally need a few sec­onds to con­nect to the app on your phone so that they can track brush­ing, which isn’t the case with a plain old tooth­brush. That lag of­ten makes the dif­fer­ence.

“I’ve man­aged to turn my lights on (man­u­ally) and that’s been 100-per-cent suc­cess­ful,” Row­land says. “We don’t ex­pect the real world to take 30 sec­onds to re­spond.”

Many IoT de­vices are also a has­sle to set up or babysit. All need to be pow­ered, so ei­ther they run on bat­ter­ies that have to recharged or they need to be plugged in. A key-op­er­ated door lock or a ba­sic tooth­brush doesn’t.

Some de­vices, such as sound sys­tems and uni­ver­sal re­mote con­trols for tele­vi­sions, also need ex­ter­nal hubs to act as go-be­tweens. Con­sumers tend to avoid such prod­ucts be­cause of the in­con­ve­nience.

“(A hub) takes up space, it takes up an out­let and cus­tomers have to pay money for them,” says Zayn Jaf­fer, di­rec­tor of emerg­ing busi­ness for Best Buy Canada.

IoT de­vel­op­ers also have to face the fact that any­thing and ev­ery­thing can and will be hacked. Not only does that mean bak­ing strong se­cu­rity fea­tures into de­vices and sys­tems, it also means lim­it­ing the po­ten­tial dam­age from a hack.

Break­ing into a tooth­brush could have triv­ial or even com­i­cal ef­fects, for ex­am­ple, but a hacked door lock could be dis­as­trous.

So far, the prod­ucts that have been suc­cess­ful are those that have tapped into fun­da­men­tal wants and needs with­out pos­ing too much of a se­cu­rity risk. Nest’s smart ther­mo­stat and Drop­cam’s cam­eras both al­lowed users to do things they couldn’t be­fore — re­mote con­trol and mon­i­tor­ing of the home, re­spec­tively — in a rel­a­tively cost-ef­fec­tive and sim­ple way. Not sur­pris­ingly, both com­pa­nies were bought by Google last year at a to­tal cost of nearly $4 bil­lion.

Google, or rather its new par­ent hold­ing com­pany Al­pha­bet, looks to be tak­ing the right ap­proach by fold­ing both ac­qui­si­tions into Nest Labs. The di­vi­sion is look­ing to de­velop a uni­fied sys­tem that can con­trol all home de­vices, thereby eas­ing the job for the con­sumer.

It’s a step in the right di­rec­tion, ac­cord­ing to Mark Rol­ston, chief cre­ative lead at de­sign firm Argo De­sign.

Con­nected homes are most ap­peal­ing when “smart” func­tions are built in at a more com­pre­hen­sive and fun­da­men­tal level, rather than on a prod­uct-by-prod­uct ba­sis.

“That’s an ar­gu­ment that starts to make sense once you re­al­ize that an in­fra­struc­ture is emerg­ing,” he says.

“You’re not buy­ing things, you’re buy­ing a sys­tem.”

The In­ter­net of things will doubtlessly have a huge ef­fect in in­dus­trial sit­u­a­tions, where en­ter­prises will use con­nected de­vices to ex­tract all man­ner of ef­fi­cien­cies from their busi­nesses.

But for the av­er­age con­sumer who just wants to brush her teeth and turn on the lights with­out think­ing, the ben­e­fits will prob­a­bly take longer to ma­te­ri­al­ize.

DAVID BECKER/GETTY IM­AGES FILE PHOTO

Like smart tooth­brushes, con­nected re­frig­er­a­tors aren’t among the best of what the In­ter­net of things has to of­fer.

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