The "Internet of Things," Still a Long Way Off

As you've heard a zillion times if you pay attention to this sort of thing, the hot technology trend of 2014 is "wearables," i.e., technology that you wear. I'm more than a little skeptical, the main reason being that wearables seem to be around five years away from not completely sucking. OK, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but at this stage, they're not transformative yet, unless you hear about a watch that monitors your heartbeat or a pair of $400 ski goggles with a heads-up display and say, "Oh my god, life as we know it will never be the same."

But the next hot technology trend, and one that has been the next trend for a while, is the "Internet of things," in which all our previously dumb and superficially mundane devices will become "smart" and connected to the web. Ask yourself: how amazing would it be if your refrigerator scanned its contents, realized you were low on milk and eggs, and placed an order to a store which delivered them, without you ever needing to be involved?

Once again, I have to say that the answer is, not all that amazing. What if I have a reason not to want to buy eggs? Maybe I'm going away for a few days, but my fridge doesn't know that. Maybe I'm going on an egg-free diet starting today. Maybe I have a carton of eggs in the car that I already bought. The point is, a fridge that's super-smart would be useful, but a fridge that's just a little smart might not be. And there are some other problems, as Peter Bright at Ars Technica suggests. First is security: every Internet-connected device you have is going to require it. It would be unfortunate if someone hacked your fridge or your washing machine (even more so if they can hack your car, which would be quite a bit more serious). But there's also the problem of the software that goes into these things. Do you think Whirlpool is going to keep producing FridgeApp updates to keep things working smoothly on a machine you bought five years ago? Don't bet on it, Bright says:

A typical smartphone bought today will remain useful and usable for at least three years, but its system software support will tend to dry up after just 18 months.

This isn't surprising, of course. Samsung doesn't make any money from making your two-year-old phone better. Samsung makes its money when you buy a new Samsung phone. Improving the old phones with software updates would cost money, and that tends to limit sales of new phones. For Samsung, it's lose-lose.

Our fridges, cars, and TVs are not even on a two-year replacement cycle. Even if you do replace your TV after it's a couple years old, you probably won't throw the old one away. It will just migrate from the living room to the master bedroom, and then from the master bedroom to the kids' room. Likewise, it's rare that a three-year-old car is simply consigned to the scrap heap. It's given away or sold off for a second, third, or fourth "life" as someone else's primary vehicle. Your fridge and washing machine will probably be kept until they blow up or you move houses.

These are all durable goods, kept for the long term without any equivalent to the smartphone carrier subsidy to promote premature replacement. If they're going to be smart, software-powered devices, they're going to need software lifecycles that are appropriate to their longevity.

That costs money, it requires a commitment to providing support, and it does little or nothing to promote sales of the latest and greatest devices.

So after a couple of years, you could wind up with a smart fridge that is no longer smart, but is just a fridge. I don't want to make you too glum if you've been waiting for the day when your toaster is connected to the Internet and your dresser analyzes your biorhythms and selects an appropriate pair of socks for you. But you've still got a while to wait.

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