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Summary:

We’ve been talking about connected homes and the internet of things for at least a decade, but why is there so much suddenly happening in the connected device space? Smartphones, access to cheap off-the-shelf technology and open software platforms have sparked the change.

SmartApp
photo: SmartThings

After almost a decade of talking about it, the internet of things, is becoming a reality. And the reason for this sudden shift is sitting in your pocket. The smartphone is the catalyst for the growth of the internet of things beyond the luxury and industrial market. If we want to give runner-up awards, I’d also credit both the influx of cheap off-the-shelf electronics and the rise of open software and platforms.

Essentially cell phone economics have invaded the internet of things while open standards pushed by the web community at large are ensuring that the platforms are, if not exactly open, at least accessible via APIs or software. This means others can easily develop on a platform if it should succeed. And because everything can be controlled from a smartphone someone already carries in their pocket, the developers of these internet of things devices don’t have to imbue their goods with much intelligence or fiddle around with expensive remotes. They also understand the parameters of the top two smartphone platforms well enough that they can limit their design decisions.

The internet of things is an old idea

As far back as 2003 I was touring connected homes and seeing labs showing how I would transfer a music playlist to my car in the morning, or when I set my medicines on my kitchen counter how a scanner would read it and tell me if there were reactions with my other medicines. And of course, in these smart home tours my lights, security cameras and appliances would be controlled via a touchscreen in my networked home.

The internet of things was a well-understood concept at least a decade ago, but today it is moving from being a hoped-for vision in a lab owned by IBM, Netgear or some other giant company to a reality created by startups on Kickstarter or pulled into consumer devices such as cars by user demand. While the old visions of the internet of things were expensive, required standards and needed a bunch of large players to work together, the version that is blossoming now has a basic platform to work with and can launch without having the support of multiple multinational corporations.

Smartphones are the glue pulling cheap tech together

For example, LG is launching its smart appliances using the Android platform as its operating system and in-home Wi-Fi as the connection back to the internet. This lowers the costs on an already-expensive home purchase by using existing and cheap Wi-Fi radios as well as the existing brains inside a smartphone. LG hopes to add new features, such as giving users the opportunity to shop from their fridge, by adding new partners over time. But thanks to apps, LG’s connected fridge already has value even without partners.

Other example are Kickstarter projects like the LIFX smart light bulb and the SmartThings system which is a hub that allows you to control objects from your smartphone. Outside of Kickstarter, as I build a new house, I have seen a few systems already that let me control my window coverings or my homes automation system via my smartphone. Vendors pitch the systems, usually based on Wi-Fi (and sometimes ZigBee) as similar to the high end luxury automation systems, only offered for less. Much like Sonos, the wireless in-home audio system learned when it built a remote app for smartphones, the market for your products can double when you lower the cost associated with getting it into people’s homes.

If that requires trading in a custom remote or proprietary OS and hardware that costs more money, for an existing smartphone (or avoiding having to build a custom remote at all) it seems clear that the catalyst for many of the democratization of the internet of things is probably sporting iOS or Android.

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