Blogs & Comment

The big problem with the Internet of Things

The Internet works fine—the Things are the problem. Your smart home is only as smart as the dumbest thing in it

Nest thermostat


Here is what the “Internet of Things” looks like in abstract: a $7.1-trillion industry where watches, phones, fridges, cars, oil rigs, factories, streetlights, garage doors and coffee makers are all connected digitally, allowing seamless interactions and propelling society into a sci-fi future.

Here is what the Internet of Things, or the IoT, looks like in practice: me, cursing on a Sunday night, wondering if my fancy new thermostat broke the furnace.

I am not usually an early adopter, but this thermostat held so much appeal. Google had paid US$3.2 billion for its manufacturer, Nest Labs. The device promised to learn my family’s habits and trim energy use over time, while also allowing us to adjust the temperature via our smartphones.

Jetsons-like dreams were dashed by Simpsons-level frustrations. The thermostat was easy to install and connected with our wireless network. All was well—until later that day we realized the heat had been running continuously for hours. Our relatively modern gas furnace lacked a crucial wire to supply the thermostat with power. In its absence, the Nest kept the furnace running to generate the necessary juice. (Research reveals this to be a common frustration with almost all smart thermostats.) We’ve become accustomed to wrestling with the connectivity issues and error messages that accompany technological progress. But, in this first encounter with the IoT, it wasn’t the Internet that failed. It was the Things.

We had a similar battle with our Wi-Fi–enabled front door. When you’ve paid $25 for a lock that sticks, it’s inconvenient; when you’ve paid $250, it’s maddening.

My microcosmic frustrations speak to the larger challenges faced by tech companies and manufacturers as they promote so-called “machine-to-machine” technology. The business opportunities are undeniable: The number of connected devices is expected to grow 17.5% each year for the next seven years, according to research-agency IDC. Meanwhile, the Acquity Group found two-thirds of consumers intend to buy connected technology for their home in the next five years, with thermostats, security systems and autonomous vacuums looking like popular purchases. Perhaps most surprisingly, one-in-five respondents expect to own a smart fridge by 2019.

While there’s enthusiasm for these products, there’s also wariness. Among consumers who are aware of the IoT, 36% questioned its value; while 23% have concerns about price, according to the Acquity report. Neither of these barriers is insurmountable, particularly when consumers see clear advantages. (More than eight-in-10 would pay more for a smart smoke detector.) But manufacturers will have a tough time overcoming these reservations if their products don’t behave well in the existing household or show poor fit and finish.

The IoT is often presented as an opportunity for wireless and cloud technology businesses, but that’s only half the story. What’s also needed are companies that can build cars and fridges and coffee makers that work well enough to justify the “smart” moniker. What we need is for Cuisinart to add computing to its ample expertise—not for Google to start selling blenders. As Nate Williams, the CMO of Greenwave Systems, recently told The Wire Report: “It’s time to stop selling the promise of IoT and focus on the product.” The future may be bright, but it will also be cold if we can’t make the furnace work when we get there.