United States of Connectedness: What works for the Internet of things

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Today you can buy an alarm clock, a pill bottle and even a scale that connects to the web. The question is, should you? As I pondered the purchase of a $130-Wi-Fi enabled scale that would talk to my Fitbit, I realized that there are three things any connected device should offer in order for its connectivity to justify the (generally) higher price I’m paying for that item.

Ecosystem: Is the connected device a platform or part of a platform I’m currently using? For the scale example, the Aria scale talks to Fitbit, which talks to LoseIt, which is where I track my calories and weight loss goals (if I have them). I’ve built a platform for tracking my food and activities information and the scale seamlessly integrates into that. Another example is the Sonos music system, which I have, or the Nest thermostat, which I’m also evaluating for purchase.

The Sonos system eliminates wires, and integrates a variety of music sources.

My Sonos, which has myriad streaming services and connects to my music server is an awesome platform and makes use of its connectivity to bring in multiple other services like Pandora or Spotify. The Nest thermostat on the other hand, is still mostly a closed system and it’s unclear if it plans to integrate with a lot of other smart devices. It does have a Zigbee and Wi-Fi radio and will likely eventually connect to smart meters. I think here a key element is how open the ecosystem is or how many people have bought into it.

Convenience: How much value the connected device offers ties into its ecosystem, but is also its own issue because the connectivity needs to allow you to do things you couldn’t previously do without connectivity. Adding connectivity to devices should make them smart but also make them easier to use. So Sonos can deliver great sound without boring holes in my walls to run wires, but the user interface on the controller also allows me to play music from a variety of sources in one place.

The Cambridge Temperature Concepts DuoFertility monitoring device.

In the health sector, a connected sensor on the body can communicate to a doctor’s dashboard without the patient getting tangled in wires, but it can also create a simpler or more convenient experience for patients. For example, Cambridge Temperature Concepts makes a connected sensor that measures various signals from the body and then helps accurately determine fertility. When patients use the system, the company reports that it is 80 percent as effective as using IVF, which can require many doctor visits, medications and inconvenient injections.

Data: This may be less relevant on my Sonos, but for medicine, energy tracking or even weight management, I like getting a stream of data sent to a site where I can review it, correlate it and establish goals. The biggest value connected data-gathering devices can offer is the ability to grab far more data than a human could and deliver this data in real-time. If a device has the intelligence to act on that data, then the connectivity is even more worth the expense.

The Nest thermostat.

The Nest is a good example of this. Even though the ecosystem is mostly closed, the thermostat is constantly collecting data and learning how you heat and cool your home. Then it implements programs based on that data to help save you energy as a consumer. Ideally it opens this up so other devices can send information to it, or it can control other devices, but for a relatively new product Nest has the data angle down.

Obviously, it depends on the device and the use case as to how to weigh these different categories. If you buy the DuoFertility system you probably don’t care if it has a great ecosystem, since the only ecosystem that matters are the doctors monitoring the device on the other end. But in general these three things are pretty good metrics to ponder when faced with a connected scale, thermostat or even a toothbrush at ten times the cost of its dumber siblings.

As for me, I decided that the scale wasn’t worth it. The ecosystem was too small, the convenience of avoiding entering my weight on the web once a week was marginal and the data wasn’t hard to get, nor was it so overwhelming in scope that I couldn’t parse it without a computer. Plus, I’m kind of cheap.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

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