The internet of things: A consumer’s perspective (and manifesto) about standards and openness

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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.

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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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