In the last few years, we’ve seen all kinds of connected devices emerge from simple internet connected power sockets all the way through smart refrigerators. The major factor driving this change is the idea that all of our things need to provide remote access and insight. But is this always useful?
There are obvious extra costs when adding internet connectivity to a device, such as the additional development and hardware costs, but there is also the less talked about cost of creating more complex systems. We will look at a couple of consumer products where internet connectivity can provide real value for the user, and a couple where the increased complexity just isn’t worth the gains.
Good Value: Internet Connected Security Camera
We’ll start this list off with the ultimate in devices that you want remote access to: your security camera. The point of security cameras is to give peace of mind that your home is safe when you are not there. Security cameras are used to simply record footage, so if something bad did occur, you might be able to find the party responsible for the damage. With remote access, however, a security camera also provides the value of alerting you when something bad is happening in real time. This means that your cameras effectively become alarm systems as well. Connectivity also allows users to access pictures of their home in real time, something that was never possible before. For the anxious among us, this means that you can definitively answer the question, “are my cats alright?”.
Bad Value: Internet Connected Thermostat
While a lot of people are happy with their internet connected thermostats, I don’t believe that they currently make a good value proposition for the average homeowner. The main competition that these thermostats have is their non-connected programmable cousins, which are able to be easily configured to go to certain temperatures on a set schedule. The only thing that internet connectivity can offer is the additional ability to remotely control the temperature, which can be useful if your flight home got pushed back a day. Given the $200 price difference, the added complexity, and the chance that SOFTWARE UPDATES MIGHT MAKE YOUR HOUSE GO COLD, I don’t think that these are likely to be widely adopted anytime soon. I still have hope that the connected thermostat could be part of a SMARTER GRID, but that change will likely be pushed by electric companies rather than consumers.
Good Value: Internet Connected Dishwasher
A lot of large appliance manufacturers have been advertising connectivity to their devices so that users can control and access them remotely. I don’t quite understand this: I’ve never been at work and thought it would be nice to start the laundry, and I’ve never left for vacation wishing that my dishwasher would let me know when it finishes. So why is the internet connected dishwasher in the good category?
One pain point with large appliances that have moving parts is that they break a lot more than purely electronic appliances. They also cost enough that they are not considered disposable; most people would rather repair these devices than buy a new one. With thousands of models out there, a typical repair takes two trips: one to diagnose the problem and order the parts, and a second to actually fix it. If a device is able to run self diagnostics to determine where the problem happened and report that back to the manufacturer, the first trip could be entirely eliminated. This would cut the warranty costs of the manufacturer, save money for the consumer if they are out of warranty (or even if they are under warranty, AS CONSUMERS REPORT THE AVERAGE FIX THEN IS STILL $172), and lead to failures being fixed quicker. My dream is that your phone could eventually pull the data out and send it to the manufacturer so that you only need to worry about one connection instead of one per device (think a TRICORDER but for machines).
Bad Value: Internet Connected Home Lighting
Internet connected home lighting takes something that has been simple and effective since the 1800s and turns it into a Rube Goldberg machine comprised of radios, computers, and LEDs. Just like with the thermostat, there are very few times where I would want to control my home lights with a cell phone that are worth the extra cost and frustration. Most LED lights also do not use WiFi; they use proprietary wireless protocols that require users to buy a hub that connects them to the internet. Without any industry standards, that expensive hub you bought to control your lights may be unusable by other vendors or made obsolete when the next generation of products comes out. I am hopeful for a bright future in industrial connected lighting, though, as the ceiling makes the perfect place to mount other sensors that could provide great analytics about how a space is used.
I don’t mean to bemoan the wasted potential of the Internet of Things, but to plead with companies and consumers to think about the tradeoffs that come with connecting a product to the internet. I think that the entire thing can be summed up by saying that a lot of home appliances do not benefit from remote control in general. Most appliances that do benefit from remote control can do so using local control for less money and complexity, similar to how a TV remote works.
There are two places where we have yet to realize the full potential of internet connected devices: in industrial spaces, where the same complexity cost yields many times the benefits, and in home devices that could add useful functionality with remote access outside the home or easier maintenance. In a lot of cases, the data generated will benefit the manufacturer more than it will benefit the consumer, which raises all kinds of interesting business models. If you work on a product that could provide more value by being online, LET’S CONNECT.