Bright, shiny things are everywhere. Like magpies, we collect them, carry them home, wear them, use them for a while, and finally forget them when the next bright, shiny thing is pushed at us by the Internet marketing machine. The Internet of (bright, shiny) Things — IoT — is eating the world, to paraphrase Marc Andreessen’s 2011 Wall Street Journal article about software. However, it is the world that is in danger of getting indigestion. These bright, shiny things may be smart, but their data architecture is pretty dumb.
The smart-things-dumb-data problem is particularly evident in the Smart Homes market. Over the past couple of years, a plethora of connected, IoT-enabled devices has been promoted mercilessly to home owners. A recent addition to the list is a frying pan that communicates with your smartphone, guides you through the cooking, and can even control the temperature if you fork out for an electric countertop burner and a WeMo switch. Ashley Clark Thompson provides a glowing review of her salmon searing experience. At $200, plus another $100 (or more) for temperature automation to tackle just one part of preparing a meal, the return on investment seems doubtful. ROI is but one part of the problem.
The story clearly illustrates the approach to market taken by suppliers of “smart, connected” devices. Individual, separate parts of real-life processes are smartened by the use of sensors and connected to the nearest computer — usually a smartphone — without any thought of what might happen before or after, either in the specific process or in the broader context of the user’s life. Is there salmon in the refrigerator and is it fresh? Was it sustainably sourced? Do ingredients need to be bought, weighed, chopped, or washed? How many calories does it carry?
Some of the steps implied by these questions can already be automated or augmented by IoT approaches. However, even the most tech-savvy home owner would be hard pressed to join the all dots into a complete picture.
It’s not only our homes that are being instrumented with smart (but one-trick) devices. An army of wearables are invading our bodies too, quite literally in some cases. Joanna Stern lists examples from hydration to feminine hygiene where smart devices offer to record and take over responsibility for every personal activity. The disempowering marketing message from one smart product startup is that “remembering to floss your teeth is hard.” When you do as prompted, another data dot is added to another disconnected and disparate data set.
Despite the preoccupation with the bright, shiny, one-trick things, suppliers such as Apple and Amazon are already creating “islands of integration” of different Smart Home devices.