A few of the things holding the IoT up

I had the privilege to have a great conversation with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino last week, who was in town speaking at WebDirections South.

I asked her about what she thought was ‘holding up’ the IoT, and she had a great answer that really left people satisfied:

People need to be patient, it took the microwave about 50 years to become popular, and now look at it, almost every household has one.

While I think this sums things up nicely, there are a few underlying themes at work here that are worth exploring:

A few of the things holding up the IoT:

1) Individual products don’t always make awesome networks.
2) There’s no critical mass
3) People are building ecosystems to make it feel like a critical mass (potentially good, potentially disastrous).
4) Make things that couldn’t be made before, not just quicker and faster things.

1) Individual products don’t always make awesome networks.

One of the problems with the IoT is that each new ‘thing’ is built to be the best it can be. ..not built to be the best part of a network it can be.

That is to say that devices are often built with one particular function in mind. They’re built to be the best connected light globe, or picture frame, or security device they can be. That’s great, and
that’s why people will buy it. However you should always design into the object an openness that allows it to be recombined with other objects. That’s where IoT objects get their value, ageing well as they come into contact with new situations, just like your favourite vintage leather bag.

For example, if you’re making a lamp that turns on when your friend turns theirs on, obviously make that functionality amazing. It’s what will get people in to buy it in the first place…it’s certainly harder to sell the possibility of what it might do in the future. But if people could buy that device knowing it will work with services in the future, that it will continue to grow with age, they may be more inclined to buy not just that device, but other devices to go with it.

Because people don’t see the value outside of the (often singular) function they buy it for, it’s hard to justify the expense. Therefore the uptake of devices rises slowly.

There’s certainly an argument for using standardised languages that will be around a few years yet like HTML/Rest, but that’s another post for another time. Look up the web of things if you’re interested.

2) There’s also a lack of critical mass.

There’s a lack of critical mass both in terms of the lack of devices being made (see (1) above for one contributing factor), but also a lack of critical mass in each workplace or house due to the huge number of areas the IoT is trying to take on at once.

People are building devices in lots of different areas, for lots of different purposes, which is great, it means there is a useful purpose for the IoT in almost every industry you could think of. But because the domains and efforts of people building IoT objects is spread so thin, the ability for one device to collaborate with another is diminished by the lack of neighbouring devices in the physical or industrial space.

For example, it’s much harder for the IoT to take off if there is one different type of location beacon for each type of industrial plant, as opposed to there being 50 different types of devices for the food manufacturing industry. If there was, that critical mass in one industry would spread much more quickly than the distributed efforts you see.

Also, domestically, as opposed to having 40 different types of light globes and security systems, what happened if we branched out a bit and tried to connect every type of object you have in your home? Maybe then people would start to see some real value.

Just like a social network that no one’s on, this lack of a feeling like there are no other IoT devices around can make it feel useless. It’s not necessarily the lack of technical ability to communicate with other devices that’s missing, it’s just that there might not be too many useful connections to make between IoT devices when they’re spread so thin across industries.

3) People are building ecosystems to make it feel like a critical mass (potentially good, potentially disastrous).

The way manufacturers are getting around this chicken and the egg syndrome of there not being enough devices in one area is to artificially create their own critical mass. Companies like Smart-Things are building their own ecosystems of devices for the home, such as temperature monitors, thermostats, alarms and motion sensors that all work together to allow more sophisticated actions to be performed.

The problem with one company creating all these devices that work together is that sometimes a lock into that one environment and one company is created. This can inhibit growth compared to a household being able to choose devices from any and all vendors as they come out. One company will never be able to keep up with the variety of what other people are doing.

This artificially created ‘ecosystem’ has the potential to slow or rapidly accelerate the growth of the IoT. Developers who make a fake feeling of critical mass need to make sure they are cross compatible, and adapt to work with other devices as the real critical mass builds with lots of devices in many different domains.

4) Make things that couldn’t be made before, not just quicker and faster things.

I’ve mentioned this idea before.

Whilst the microwave in many ways just does the old job of an oven more quickly and conveniently, the IoT has the potential to create entirely new classes of devices. At the moment it’s focusing on doing things like monitoring and notifications..things that make money by cutting down margins. There’s a big business in that, but it’s not focusing on things that couldn’t be done before. That’s the big takeaway for the IoT. For example, instead of simply monitoring someone’s heart rate with a basis watch, combine it with the knowledge of their eating patterns and the GPS from Moves app, and offer some useful insights we couldn’t have known before.

Implications for design:

This is why for the IOT to truly take off in my mind, we have to start designing as though our device lives in a big ecosystem by providing control over the device beyond what is needed for that original single purpose, whilst at the same time perfecting that single purpose so you provide a level of value that is immediate from the outset.

Of course things are designed as single purpose.. there’s no existing network for them to be sold into (eg. since there are a lot of webpages, web browsers are sold as multipurpose tools). But as the critical mass grows, both through artificial and natural means, the gaps will fill in and we’ll see a new class of IoT device rise in prominence.

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