Sunday, May 10, 2015

The "Internet of Things" is dumb

In 1982, a group of students at Carnegie Mellon University developed a soda vending machine that allowed customers to check the availability of soda in the machine remotely. Interested customers could talk to the machine from their computers, using the Unix finger protocol, and get the machine to respond back with the relative temperature and availability of soda in the vending machine. This machine was later dubbed the Internet Coke Machine and was a hit among people in the area at that time.

The Internet Coke Machine was also the first "connected" appliance. For those unfamiliar with connected appliances, these are devices that traditionally serve a rather simple and singular role (e.g. a toaster), but are developed to connect to a network and interact with other devices on the network (e.g. a toaster that informs your cellphone that it's time to take out the toast). Connected appliances are meant to augment the user's experience with them, providing extra information to the user or providing data to other connected appliances.

This concept of having everyday industrial products being able to talk to each other and to the user through a computer network is the Internet of Things (IoT). Someone must have spent a lot of time coming up with that name.

IoT is on the rise. Research by Gartner speculates that humanity will have over 26 billion, currently dumb, everyday appliances talking to each other by 2020. We currently have thousands of products being marketed as smart devices; from Samsung smart TVs to Wi-Fi enabled smoke detectors. While some of these kinds of products have some value or, at least, some potential, many of them seem to have been thought up by a group of bored teenagers under the influence of something dank. Seriously, how else could you explain this video:

In case you do not understand the above video, it's showing a cup that connects to the Internet and causes another cup of its kind to glow when someone picks up the first cup. Yes, someone wants you to pay them more money than you would pay for a regular cup, just so you could have a cup that makes another expensive cup glow. It's probably not even dishwasher safe.

The newest trend on the Internet is to have seemingly smart people with some industrial experience, but not enough self-restraint, get on websites like Kickstarter and ask for money for the most inane and pretentious of product ideas from other people, with more money than sense, who are willing to jump on the IoT bandwagon. This trend has filled Kickstarter with videos of folks using marketing buzzwords and catchphrases to try to sell products that are more expensive than their contemporary counterparts are, but connect to the Internet to provide some flimsy feature that no one really asked for and no one will really use more than twice after purchasing the product.
"We're confident that we're going to be able to disrupt the current status-quo and transition from digital entry to instant, automatic entry and ambient data collection, so that it's just happening in a seamless way" 
― Some guy selling dishware
What the hell does the above quote even mean?

The saddest part of this trend is that many of these products will never work as promised.

I'll eat a hat if this product does half of what it vaguely promises

Now, do not get me wrong. I'm no Luddite proclaiming failure for all appliances that manufacturers try to enhance with internet connectivity. My semi-coherent rambling is just to state my opinion that this buzzword-filled marketing tactic to cash-in on selling products that are more expensive just because they have an IP address and provide questionable value is not what IoT needs. People just need to dial it down and realize that not everything needs to be connected and that going around your house, picking appliances up and thinking of a way to connect that appliance to the Internet is not the best way to invent things.

The concept of IoT, in itself, does have some value. From better energy management with Advanced Metering Infrastructure to remote health monitoring, IoT holds valuable potential. It's just not there yet.

Footnote: A very nice website to witness the ludicrousness is this Tumblr blog aptly called "We put a chip in it"

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