The Internet of Things Needs Integrators, Not Gadgets

Post by Maxime Rousseau

Crowd-funding and the sharp drop in development costs for internet connected device has given us both an onslaught of useless gadgets, and the much overused buzzword "Internet of Things", or IoT. The concept has been pushed way past the borders of absurdity, as highlighted by the likes of @InternetofShit. I'm only half surprised: personal computing has plateaued, with many of the "traditional" challenges posed by hardware such as transistor and storage density being more of less solved, what more is there to innovate in? To break the "sit down in front of a screen" paradigm of computing, the industry is shooting in all directions to find new ground. This spray-and-pray approach to innovation is surely finding new ways to do things, but in the frenzy of it, we are offered truly senseless gadgets, from cloud-connected candles to bluetooth kegel exercisers.

All these gadgets are of course intended to be mass-marketed to the public at large, people who are in the aggregate are almost completely technologically illiterate. I'd bet that most of the time, they are used with whatever app they are shipped with, and seldom integrated into other systems through platforms like IFTTT. Because they have to just work even for the least tech savvy, several shortcuts are taken in the design of these gadgets: more often than not they are battery powered, and work in a way which handicaps their usability for more advanced user. They are almost never meant to have a lifetime that exceeds a few years, at most. Almost all the time, they are dependant on some online service running in the cloud, which is susceptible to be hacked, taken down due to an outage, or just plain shut down when the gadget-maker inevitably goes bankrupt or disappears in the fog like so many other tech companies.

All the while this is happening, people buying the gadgets with the intent of having technology make their lives easier are connecting all those devices to 50$ routers which are generally both unreliable and insecure. They pipe enormous amounts of data, some of it sensitive in nature, to servers hosted who knows where. Home automation is on everybody's lips, but houses are still being built with a basic run of RG6 and a few phone lines as the only data cables present within their walls. Technology as a whole is ubiquitous, but no one technology has gained the traction necessary to signal a significant change; one might have a smart lock and the other a few smart lights, but only the biggest nerds have integrated these things into systems which ACTUALLY make day-to-day living easier or more enjoyable. Absolutely none of these piece-meal IoT innovations has had the impact on the population at large of, say, the electric refrigerator or the good old personal computer. I believe the IoT will remain but a buzzword until the industry leaps over this hurdle and brings forth something that becomes as widespread in it's adoption.

I feel that home automation is the place where the IoT really has the potential to shine. It's completely abhorrent that technology we use to interface with the functionalities of our living spaces have been largely unchanged for the past century. With the current concern for making dwellings more energy efficient, I think the time is ripe for more widespread adoption, but certain things have to change. I believe that for IoT to gain traction, particularly in the home automation sphere, certain things need to change; some things need to stop, and others need to start happening more often.

STOP MAKING YOUR DEVICE RELIANT ON THE CLOUD. Off-loading compute and management to the cloud is a smart thing to do, for all sorts of reasons which I won't bother listing. Most users don't mind sending massive amounts of data to the cloud, and those that do are generally the type of people to homebrew their own automation solutions, so privacy concerns are not a huge deal. Where relying on the cloud gets annoying is when it, or your access to it, fails. The PetNet fiasco is a good example of this. It's horribly bad design to rely on inputs from the internet to have things work, and even in 2016, nobody should ever be assumed to have a 100% uptime internet connection. Ubiquiti has this figured out for their wireless access points. They employ a provisioning process that stores configuration locally on the devices, expects regular pingbacks from them, but works just fine when the controller is absent for whatever reason, even when the units get powered down. I've had access point setups run without a controller for MONTHS without affecting the product's foremost functionality, providing wifi.

START GIVING THE OPTION OF NOT USING THE CLOUD AT ALL. In a perfect world, everything would be open source and I could run a copy of Nests backend on my servers if I wanted to. In this imperfect world which is ours, this is not an option. That doesn't mean that users shouldn't be given the choice to opt-out of the cloud entirely, and use the array of sensors onboard the device in different ways. Perhaps this is too much of the Apple-championned "protected ecosystem" idea permeating the tech sector at large, but making cloud-management a non-negociable part of the product is surely preventing a lot of these IoT companies from moving units.

Sure, there's an API for everything, but the fact that I have to call a server on the internet to interact with my thermostat is totally non-sensical. That's not to mention that API access usually can't interact with the sensors directly. I'd love to be able to save myself a PIR install and use the presence sensor on my Nest products directly, but sadly, that's not an option. How hard can it be to have some way of querying devices, via network or otherwise, to use the raw input they can provide?

It's a matter of time before we start seeing people have their expensive gadgets turn to to paperweights because the company providing the backend goes tits up. By enabling direct-to-device interaction, we can avoid this.

STOP MAKING EVERYTHING WIRELESS. I'm talking for both power and data. While the evolution of ICs and battery tech has us changing batteries less and less often, it's still an ENORMOUS pain in the ass to change batteries. There's a reason why fire departments literally have to go door to door to remind people to change the batteries in their smoke alarms. Power redundancy: YES! Battery-only power that makes me buy obscure-sized coin cells every 18 months: HELL NO!

Wireless for data is obviously a go-to for IoT companies because it removes an important barrier to entry for the consumers, who can just takes stuff out of the box, plug it in and enjoy. This is fine if you used RGB lighting as a party trick to impress guests in your living room, but it's very annoying if you have stuff throughout the house that need to talk to Zigbee-Wifi interface boxes. Soon, you find yourself with Zigbee relays plugged in everywhere, which is an eyesore. I can't really comment on the security and interference implications of automating an entire house on wireless, but generally, it seems that using whatever wireless protocol is just a lazy workaround to using cables, which are more secure, resilient and effective at transmitting both power and data.

We live in a time where 4-pair network cable can transmit incredible amounts of data all the while powering a small TV, and the IEEE keeps developing on this technology. Start thinking about how you can leverage this.

START EMBRACING PERMANENT INSTALLS AND LONG LIFE CYCLES. People buy homes for years, decades. If you intend to make a product which makes this home better, it should have have a life-cycle that makes sense on the scale of that which it's going in. Support your products for long enough to make permanent installs a likely consideration, and find new ways to monetize a longer relationship with your customer-base. By all means, innovate and disrupt and do all those things that you startup nerds are up to, but don't forget the people who bought your product because it solves one of their problems in favour of the fad followers who react strongly to hyped-up release announcements. Think cross-compatibility (of brackets, connectors, wiring) and upgradability (of software, hardware components where applicable). A product that compliments a home shouldn't be sold like a phone or a smartwatch.

This is wishful thinking, because honestly I don't think anybody is in the business of making durable goods anymore. It's a shame, especially considering the recurrent revenu potential of IoT devices in the form of services that compliment the device.

START SUGGESTING HALF-DECENT NETWORKS TO YOUR CUSTOMERS. Defence wonks how work on military drones believe they should be used as a tactical tool for strategic ends, and laments how politicians just use it as a cool toy whenever convenient. I think IoT has the same problem: IoT devices should be considered part of a larger infrastructure, and designed to fit in a well-built core network, not standalone solutions.

This goes back to "stop making all the things wireless" point of course, but I'd really want to see the industry push for a wholistic approach to making your home smart, starting with the basics: a decent routeur, correctly configured and layed-out access points, a hardwired network which is well integrated to the building and a proper rackmount cabinet where everything terminates cleanly. Some will say I'm a gear slut, and to that I will plead guilty as charged, but hear me out. I'm not asking for a 42U cabinet in every home. I'm asking for a semi-standardized way of laying out the vital components of a smart home which makes upkeep easier.

Networking equipment aught to be suggested as an option to owners building new homes; so much of our lives is spent interacting with internet-connected devices, it's completely ridiculous to still have half-assed retro-fitted solutions providing this vital connectivity.

This will be a hard transition to make because of resistance from both consumers and IoT manufacturers, but in the long run, developing infrastructure within homes onto which companies can develop will assuredly enable additional innovation in automation technologies. Tech people, make a consortium or whatever to push this agenda, and you'll get to open up new avenues for your business in addition to creating new positions with cool names that you can put on your business cards.

START CHAMPIONING THE EXPERTISE OF INTEGRATORS. This ties in closely with all previous points. No amount of ease of installation and 3rd party integration capabilities will replace well-thought out integration of automation solutions into people's dwellings. No matter how beautifully designed your product is, ideally it should be (in most cases) entirely hidden and require as little user intervention as possible. People want things that JUST WORK, and I'd argue that many times they are willing to pay people to get their stuff setup to just work.

Entrepreneurs are going to have start offering those services, but there are things that manufacturers can start doing to help a network of home automation integrators appear. Define installation norms, collaborate with your industry peers all the while doing it, and start working on certification and installation referral programs to legitimize the people that are willing to do the legwork in showing the masses what your products can do. Nest has this kind of program, and it's an honest attempt at getting something like this going. In the end, integrators who know what's out there and what can be done have the potential to generate sales and create loyal customers. Additionally, they provide priceless technical feedback and possibilities for large-scale beta-testing of new products in real use cases. That's stuff you usually don't get when interacting directly with the customer.

The takeaway of this post is that I feel that somehow, companies that bring IoT products to market in the home automation sphere need to stop trying to push units through big-box retailers and design products that are meant to be long-term investments just like air-exchangers, heat-pumps, furniture and large appliances. Give us less gadgets, and more solid solutions to actual problems. Give us less Bluetooth, more PoE ethernet, things that integrate to a house, not a phone. Don't just offer a cloud API, offer more complete access to your devices themselves, for users which want to use your products as products, and not as services. Maybe then, we can start seeing truly smart homes.