CES Overselling the Internet of Things

-January 06, 2015

If you look at the early news coming out of the International CES this week in Las Vegas, it is clear that the Internet of Things (IoT) is a dominant theme. With more than 900 IoT exhibitors showing products and the opening keynotes at the show IoT related, the energy behind the technology is immense. But it may be too much.

Early reports from the show are somewhat disquieting in the breadth and range of IoT offerings that are "me too" kinds of wearables and convenience-oriented products of marginal value. Some of the highlights include a tea kettle you can remotely start with a smartphone app, an automatic plant watering device that reports plant status to the cloud, and a coffee pot that strengthens its morning brew if your fitness monitor shows you didn't get enough sleep the night before. There are also innumerable variations on health and body monitors and smart watches on display.

Frankly, most of these new products invoke little more than mild interest in me at best, and usually elicit a big yawn. But then, I have been covering the IoT for some time now and not so easily impressed. I can see, though, how the general consumer could find these devices amazing and exciting the first time they encounter them. But that will only be a flash of interest based on the novelty of the technology. For consumer IoT to develop a lasting market, it will need to actually offer value. And for the IoT to deliver its full value, devices need to be able to connect with one another in true Internet fashion rather than be the isolated solutions that they are today.

This actually was one of the points made by Samsung CEO Boo-Keun Yoon in his opening keynote today. Yoon called for an open industry ecosystem that will allow IoT devices to collaborate and share data. Such as ecosystem would allow the IoT to more readily deliver on its promises by enabling synergies to arise from the collaboration of multiple devices after installation, providing continual innovation in services as developers figure out how to recombine these devices in new and useful applications.

There is a certain amount of that happening now, of course. Nest, for instance, now has more than a dozen other IoT devices from various manufacturers that will collaborate with its signature thermostat in home automation applications. And Samsung has acquired SmartThings to help interconnect its emerging IoT products with those of other manufacturers. But these are two of several rival approaches that are not necessarily compatible with one another. So, we are only moving from isolated devices to small, isolated communities of devices. The true IoT is still a long way from realization.

And this, to me, is the harm in the push for IoT at CES. It is generating excitement among consumers, but too much too soon. Consumers are a fickle lot, hard to keep satisfied, and when they discover that these nifty-sounding devices are actually little more than remote-controlled versions of what they already have that are hard to combine into anything more substantial, they will abandon the technology in droves. That can only harm the industry.

Perhaps it's inevitable, though. The early days of the Internet went through a similar stage with vast enthusiasm for all things Internet, with online companies offering services from grocery shopping to custom-roasted coffee. Most of them eventually failed because they lacked value and could not scale, taking the entire industry into a depression that took years to recover from. During that recovery, however, the industry worked out the problems uncovered in that early bloom, building the basis for the substantive online systems we see today.

CES is pushing the IoT, and it seems to me that the result will be like the dot-com bubble that collapsed in the 90s. It won't be pretty, but perhaps it is necessary.

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