Waiting on the Internet of Things

Everyone agrees the Internet of Things will revolutionize our homes. But it’s not clear when this might happen.

By Zeid Nasser

Some find it hard to define, but the Internet of Things (IoT) simply refers to ‘things’ that are connected to the Internet, and therefore also connected to each other. These ‘things’ are appliances and personal devices that collect data as you use them, monitor your preferences, then work together to make ‘smart’ decisions on your behalf.

For example, your ‘smart’ fridge will learn what food items you like and will then communicate with your ‘smart’ TV to flash up items you’re running low on. Perhaps your TV will then visit an online store and order them for you. Another example is a ‘smart’ thermostat which will learn what temperatures you like inside your house relative to temperatures outside, and will then automatically warm or cool your home to your liking.

Clearly, this presents a huge opportunity for manufacturers of gadgets and appliances. That’s why Samsung recently announced that all its products will be Internet-enabled by 2020 and hooked-up to their own smart ecosystem.

Unfortunately, Samsung’s smart devices won’t be able to communicate with other smart gadgets developed by rival manufacturers using different standards in the emerging IoT market. Clearly, this is a huge challenge for the future of IoT. It means your fridge still can’t talk to your TV, if each uses a different IoT technology. It doesn’t make your lifestyle ‘smart’ at all.

So Samsung, Dell, and Intel have created the ‘Open Interconnect Consortium’ (OIC), which they hope will eventually lead to a “vendor-neutral, open-source software collaborative standard.” The project has a rival in the form of the AllSeen Alliance, which is being backed by 51 consumer electronics and software companies, including Microsoft, LG, Panasonic, Sharp, and Qualcom.

Industry analysts are betting this current carnival of standards will be sorted out and it won’t slow down this tech phenomenon. Gartner Research predicts that “smart home” technology will add $1.9 trillion to the global economy by 2020.

But the situation may get even more complicated as the two personal tech giants, Apple and Google, are also getting in on the game.

Apple has launched HomeKit, a platform that will allow users to control locks, lights, cameras, doors, thermostats, plugs, and switches at their homes via an iPhone app, without the need for multiple apps to control each device or function. So Apple is trying to simplify the experience, provided you drop everyone else’s solution and go with theirs. This is typical of Apple’s closed ecosystem approach.

In contrast, just like the iOS-Android battle, Google sees an opportunity in going up against Apple by proposing an ‘open ecosystem.’ It could mean people will one day ask one another: “Do you live in an Apple or a Google home?”

Last year, Google paid $3.2 billion in cash to acquire Nest, the company that created the smart thermostat and smoke detector. Signaling Google’s grand plan, Larry Page said: “We are excited to bring great experiences to more homes in more countries and fulfill their dreams!”

What this also means is that Google will have even more data about its users. This brings us to the important issue of privacy, or the lack thereof, in your new always-connected home. Who owns the information collected by IoT devices, you or the manufacturers? This and more ethics-related questions will have to be answered.

Then there’s the issue of safety. If all these IoT devices work together smoothly and don’t malfunction, it could make our homes massively more convenient. But it could also turn into a nightmare, in which a technical glitch would lock you up inside your own home, or a software virus could mean you don’t have hot water or worse. Therefore, experts believe that the use of reliable and fully secure IoT devices won’t become a common way of life until 2025.

So until the IoT is fully tested and widely adopted, perhaps the ‘smart’ thing to do is to ensure that your ‘things’ just stay dumb and dependable.