The Internet of Things
A look at a few bright spots on the road to a truly smart world.
Few things are trendier in tech than the Internet of Things (IoT). In my own words, the IoT is the idea of bringing the Internet to typically disconnected “dumb” objects to control them or to get more information from them, thereby making them “smart” objects. The control can be manual or automated and can originate from a person using an app, from another smart device, or from something in the cloud. Popular examples today include household objects like the Nest thermostat, Philips Hue lightbulbs, and Samsung refrigerators; but the IoT also has many real and projected industrial and commercial applications.
I can relate as much as anyone to the appeal of using gadgets to make daily life better or easier, and I have ventured down that path more than a few times in recent years. Sometimes the results were better than I had hoped; often they fell well short.
Probably my most successful attempt was one of my first: a Sonos whole home audio system. It consists of Internet-connected, reliable, wirelessly networked devices that play music in each room with easy control from any phone, tablet or computer. It just works — and from the day I first installed it, it has made my life just a little better by bringing more music to it than there would otherwise be. The combination of convenience, access to a wide variety of music sources and automation — all of which spring from its connectivity — are what make it great and are a good example of the benefits of the IoT when done well.
I also love and would quickly recommend my Nest camera, which stores video in the cloud and lets me view it from anywhere, and my BrewPi fermentation controller, which lets me control, monitor, record, and automate the temperature of fermenting beer. In both cases, the devices’ connectivity makes them far superior to their predecessors.
On the flip side, I have found some connected products to be more trouble than they’re worth and others to be too unreliable to recommend. I had smart light switches that up and died, so I replaced them with disconnected (but neat) timers. I’ve tried other brands of cloud-based security cameras (Nest does not have an outdoor model), and have found their connectivity to be spotty and their functionality a little lacking. And I have several $40 light bulbs that can turn any color of the rainbow, which the entire family now uses just like a $2 light bulb 99 percent of the time.
Despite the inconsistency, the grand vision of IoT is compelling. It’s a world where all electronic and mechanical items automatically do exactly what people want them to do and tell people everything they want to know in an easily digestible way. As a first step, we obviously need to be able to communicate with and control those items, and the fact that doing so has become technically possible is the reason that the IoT is now a hot topic.
But simply being able to connect everything to the Internet is not enough. Despite the existence of various home automation hubs and the cloud service IFTTT, which start to tie things together, the reality is that today we have an assortment of mostly independent devices, each of which serves one specific function with its own app, its own login account, etc.
For IoT to really take off, we need real standards to emerge so that we can start the truly exciting work of making things work together in non-trivial ways to accomplish interesting tasks. It’s a nice thought that I could get to the grocery store and use my refrigerator app to find out how many eggs I have at home, but what I really want is for my refrigerator to buy eggs for me when I’m low and have them delivered to itself – without sending me 10 emails along the way.
Steven Ellis has spent the last 16 years working at the intersection of business and technology for Bellwether Technology in New Orleans, where he serves as the company’s vice president.