Yo wants to connect the internet of things, but that’s easier said than done

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Yo, the app that lets you send folks a simple “Yo,” has gone from being a one-trick pony to attempting to become a hub for all kinds of notifications with an app update on Tuesday. Yes, it looks a bit like If This Then That (IFTTT) — and that means it’s one of many startups that are attempting to aggregate a slew of web services, from Pinterest to Instagram, under one app.

It’s no longer enough to have notifications on your phone. As we connect more things to the internet, we’ll have more notifications, and we’ll probably also want to see those notifications in more places. For example, you might want the driver-side window of your car to project your calendar for the day as you’re walking up to the vehicle. Or you may want to see your texts or Instagrams on your television as you cook dinner with it in the background.

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That need for notifications, and the need for them to be in a simple and easy to consume format, is the impetus behind Yo, Numerous, Numerics, and scads of other apps trying to deliver snippets of information for a variety of screens — from those on your wrist to those on your wall.

This is only the beginning

But, even as these apps proliferate they face a number of challenges. One of the conveniences they are trying to offer users is a single place for ever more notifications coming from web services, but also from connected devices. Your Withings Pulse might send you a Yo when you need to get off your butt and walk more. I built a similar recipe using IFTTT that turned power to my television off if I didn’t meet my step goals for the day.

Right now, you have to program these things yourself, which limits their utility to a select group of people who really want to get a Yo when their server goes down or who have colleagues who want a Yo when it’s time to hit a daily meeting. IFTTT has a similar issue. Everyone thinks I am nuts for using it until I find the use case that appeals to them. For my mom it’s stock movement notifications tied to a smart light bulb or outlet. For my sister-in-law it’s getting an email when Craigslist posts something she’s set an alert for.

My living room with red Hue lights after the Cardinals score a point.

My living room with red Hue lights after the Cardinals score a run.

The confusion about why someone needs notifications and the need to program these services limits their adoption for now. I tend to think of them as a first-generation solution to the problem of too many devices and information overload. The obvious next-generation offering will be something built with more ambient information delivery (like the light flickering when a stock moves) or even your phone shouting “Yo” to remind you of a meeting so you don’t have to check the screen. But the second element will be how devices figure out when to deliver those cues.

And that will require some amount of cooperation. Each of us does some crazy redundant task all day long, whether it’s tracking your weight or flipping over to check your email. With connectivity and intelligence provided in the cloud your scale can tell that you step on it twice a week. At that point it can offer suggestions through the app of likely recipes and then implement them.

For example, you might get an offer to link your scale to a spreadsheet or your fitness tracker or Google’s Android Fit (or Apple’s Health Kit). There’s no searching for devices you may own or dreaming up recipes, just a suggestion that you can accept and follow through with directly in the app you are using at the time.

A word of caution

While these suggestions make sense from a usability standpoint, right now we’re stuck because that level of cooperation means that companies may lose users of their own apps and become just a device vendor passing along or perhaps selling the data stream to all the interested parties who want your weight. And that reluctance to let go of the individual app stems from a very real issue — namely we have no revenue models in place for these services so far.

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I’ve suggested that people could pay for real-time access to web services. For example, there’s a 15-minute delay in sports scores resulting in a light change, something I might pay to get immediately. But then that revenue stream might have to be split between ESPN, which is providing the scores, the middleman IFTTT or Yo app and the light-bulb maker.

Or perhaps the middlemen will sell ads of some sort, either by recommending recipes that use one service over another based on payments (an analogy might be paying for premium shelf space in a grocery store, or placing a sponsored ad on a search page) or something a bit more banal inside the service itself. But many of these services see their value in becoming connective tissue of a sorts between the web and the real world.

The question is whether there’s any money in that and if the eventual path to revenue alienates the users it purports to serve. If, as my friend Om Malik says, we’re in the attention economy, these companies are trying to make a play in letting users control when and where they let their attention focus. That’s a valuable place to be, so now the challenge is building out methods to get mainstream adoption and then trying to monetize those users or the partners.

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