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Summary:

After almost a year of covering the internet of things, I review what I’ve learned, how my thinking has changed and what we’re looking for in the year ahead.

2013-11-07 12.26.11
photo: S. Higginbotham

In the last year I’ve gone from 12 connected devices in my home to about 50. As I’ve tried out different systems and ripped stuff on and off the walls I’ve spent about $3,000 worth of my own money and reviewed maybe $6,000 worth of equipment from hubs to sensors to connected toothbrushes (that last one wasn’t worth it). And in this last year my perspective has shifted with regard to the goals and questions we should be asking about connected devices.

The IEEE asked me to speak at a roundtable discussion held in Los Gatos (see picture above for the location!) on Thursday, so I trundled through the hills of California in my rental car clutching my MacBook and a hastily composed presentation, hoping that my ideas might offer some perspective for the group’s standards-setting agenda around the internet of things.

I thought it might be worth sharing my presentation below, with a bit of an explainer. Most of the stuff I talked about — the challenges of discoverability, creativity, programming, and “protocol drama” — I’ve covered here on the site and on the internet of things podcast. For example, when I talked about the challenge of accountability in what have essentially become federated services, I used the example of my malfunctioning Hue light and IFTTT recipe I discussed with Kevin Tofel on Tuesday’s podcast.

But in putting together the presentation I realized one key way my perspective has shifted in this last year. I had been thinking of the internet of things as an evolutionary process through which I’d eventually get a “smart home” that can could predict what I’m doing or need and then take care of it without involving me. The idea is that we move from being able to remotely turn on a light while sitting on the couch to the house recognizing that we’re hunkered down in front of the TV at 8:30pm and automatically dimming the lights. (The intermediate step is the computer asking our permission to dim the lights).

We will perhaps get there. I imagine my house combined with Google Now and can’t wait, but the real efforts and conversations this year aren’t about that; they are about the home as a platform. The key question so far is: Is the connected home going to be a vertically integrated Apple-like ecosystem or an open system where data flows freely between devices in the cloud?

My initial excitement about these technologies came from realizing the enormous potential we as users have to manipulate the physical components of our environment and tie that environment to the web-based services and algorithms available online. So I can place a water sensor by my daughter’s bathtub and link that to a radio or light plugged into a connected wall socket so when she starts splashing water outside the tub she gets immediate feedback that she needs to tone it down. That’s not a use case that is currently offered as part of the connected home packages.

smarthingslivingroom

But that level of creativity is what I’m looking for in connected homes, which is why the connected hubs such as SmartThings and Revolv are so interesting, or services like IFTTT have such appeal. However, even as they are rushing to the market, they are so far a bit daunting for the average consumer to use. That’s why ISPs and stores like Lowes or Staples are releasing products that aim to make connecting a home even easier, albeit with less freedom to customize today.

It’s also why hardware vendors like Nest or Smasung are trying to push products into the user’s home that aim to build up a network effect, where the more devices from that same vendor you buy, the better experience you have. But I don’t think consumers buy devices that way, and it also ignores the idea that the real value in the connected home are actually the services.

But when it comes to the smart home, this race to become a platform and control the customer as well as the flow of data generated and demanded by that customer is the defining drama of this particular moment. I expect this will shake out in the next year as more and more people purchase a connected product and start trying to do more than just turn on the lights from their couch, and more and more companies (including giants like Google or Microsoft) release their products for this arena.

Below are my slides. As a side note, I was also asked about the challenges of reporting on this area, but feel free to ignore those final items unless you’re just excited about how your journalism sausage is made. I’d love to continue this conversation.

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  1. Stacey,

    I had to read halfway down your post to get your main point: Is the Internet of Things going to be a proprietary vertical market or will it be a broadly open market with a common data communication standard? I have also written on this question, and Qualcomm has also echoed the view that IoT is in danger of becoming a Tower of Babbling Things that do not communicate with each other. http://mayo615.com/2013/07/20/the-internet-of-things-the-promise-and-the-hairball/

    1. Where has Qualcomm echoed that view? I saw no mention of them in post you linked to.

      1. The CEO of Qualcomm gave a keynote speech at the IoT Conference in SF a couple of weeks ago, used the term “Tower of Babble” in his talk, and it has been reported wide in the tech press, including, I believe, Gigaom

  2. Yes, we need mooooorreee connection – with the human kind of gadgets, not more metal and plastic. This “advancement” will only take us backwards as a society — Sorry, I’m out. But interesting article :)

  3. I think the IoT will eventually succumb to the privacy of people (PoP). Legally speaking, bringing these devices into your home is akin to signing away your 4th amendment rights against search and seizure to *anything* going on in your home that can be monitored.

  4. I think the IoT will eventually succumb to the privacy of people (PoP). Legally speaking, bringing these devices into your home is akin to signing away your 4th amendment rights against search and seizure to *anything* going on in your home that can be monitored.

  5. jeffreelyactive Monday, November 11, 2013

    Stacey, about the time you started covering the Internet of Things, we wrote a blog post about the connected home, citing the experiences from our connected home project a DECADE earlier, and I think the conclusion is still valid today:
    http://reelyactive.com/blog/archives/67

    It’s not technology holding this back. There’s insufficient value for the end user, at least with the current offering.

    As co-founder of an IoT startup, you’d think that I’d have as many gadgets as you in my home. I have zero aside from our own presence identification system. I think that says a lot!

    Perhaps it’s time to avoid using the home as the go-to example for the Internet of Things (after all, many of these devices covered are glorified remote controls) and focus more on the ecosystems where technology being able to sense and respond to the physical world is having a significant impact?

  6. Stacey, love your article and it sums up where I am falling on home automation – confused and dazed. I found myself needing to define some criteria for the “toys” I will buy:

    http://myjetsonhome.tumblr.com/post/65883995566/how-will-i-choose-products-for-myjetsonhome

    I don’t want to spend money on things that just seems cool and I can show my friends so they’ll think I’m cool. I want connected things that make sense and add real value to my life.

  7. I like the idea of “Home as platform”. The next interesting idea is who should manage and curate that platform as a service to the consumer? I mean every company out there with a home automation offering will be glad to step up and claim ownership of the “home platform” – but as you note, a homeowner will want to use a variety of smart things and they must interconnect.

    In the home of the last century, the “platform” has been building codes – for structural, electrical, plumbing, etc. Those codes are set down by municipalities and enforced by inspectors and by the building permit process. These codes allow homeowners to build anything within the boundaries specified by the codes.

    So, I think there is a good question around the role carriers or your cable company should play but as home automation progresses there will be more concerns about safety and security and individual companies will be hard-pressed to “care” as much as municipalities who exist to benefit local homeowners and the community.

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