2014 will be the year of “Stupid Things on the Internet.” Now, I know what you’re thinking: Hey, we’ve been here before with things like toasters, refrigerators, and the JenniCam, but this time it’s serious business, right?
Well, it will be for some items. Obviously, Google’s Nest acquisition proves that at least one large enterprise sees value in the Internet of Things. And there is value there, absolutely. The real issue is, where is the value? Is there value in having your toothbrush on the Internet, as Marc Benioff so gleefully explained at last year’s Dreamforce event?
I’m saying no. And yet, things like the Nest smoke detector make perfect sense to put on the Internet. While the idea of calling the fire department through the Internet is something of an IT crowd moment, you’ve got to expect that someday it will be the norm.
So what is the difference between useful Internet things and stupid Internet things? The line will be discovered in 2014 and 2015. I’d even be willing to bet the line can be drawn as clumsily as “Is it advertised on late-night television?” or “Is it sold in the check-out line at Walgreens?” Both of those would be big “no’s.” There’s already a few prototype hoodwink tech items in Walgreens, as a matter of fact. Anyone see the RabbitTV?
Basically, it’s a USB dongle with something like 128KB of memory, which holds little more than a link to a website that contains further links to free Internet video streams and shows. Add in a $10 yearly subscription fee, and you’ve got grandma thinking she’s using the Netflix, when she’s really just watching YouTube videos through a juiced-up proxy.
Take that idea a step further. Internet shoes are already a “thing,” as are pedometers. How long before those start being co-opted and diluted? Pedometer hats! Pedometer magnetic focus bracelets! Internet-enabled weights!
One can only dream of the craptacular ideas that will start to trickle into a marketplace hungry for the Internet of Things. You can expect a lot of failed visions to collide with the walls this year. But you can also expect a hearty helping of genuinely useful devices. Thermostats, water heaters, filtration systems, and other automated devices that we use every day but never think about probably have a lot to say to their manufacturers about how we use them, and that’s actually useful power- and resource-saving information for the energy grid.
Those systems have already been dialing home for years, anyway, so the Internet of Things isn’t anything new there. They’re just using a different medium to communicate. I’m dead serious. I’ve heard of water heaters, industrial laundry machines and furnaces that have phone lines installed so they can call out to their maintenance company whenever there’s a problem.
Problem there, however, was that the service and maintenance companies tended to go out of business long before the furnaces and other goods died. The result was that little old ladies in Kansas were being crank-called at 3 a.m.—and every 24 hours thereafter—by rogue water heaters four states away simply because they’d inherited the service company’s phone number.
And therein lies a major bugaboo for all these forthcoming products: What happens when these Internet-enabled devices lose their vendors? The Chumby was saved by the grace of its open-source community.
All of these Internet things are enabled through external connections jumping into your network. Take Google Chromecast: If you don’t have an Internet connection, you can’t initialize it because the setup process is tied to an outside server.
Maybe we don’t have to worry about Google going away anytime soon, but some of these new product companies could very easily vanish. Imagine if your smoke alarm manufacturer died, and as a result, your smoke alarm just stopped working.
This is a major shift in our economy, generally related to the shift to software, but also related to the ephemeral nature of our existence. It used to be that a water heater would outlast its service company. But now we’re entering an era where no device will outlive its manufacturer. Horrors.