In the late 1970s my parents bought a new family TV, the first we'd ever owned that came with a remote control. My mom was appalled: “How hard can it be to walk six feet from the couch to change the channel?”
Ah, but here's the thing: History shows us that convenience is a key driver in consumer acceptance of new technology. No matter how trivial the gift to our laziness, a product that saves us effort is likely to be a winner.
That, for example, was supposed to be the appeal of the Internet of Things.
That awkward term refers to everyday objects that have been blessed with wireless networking. Usually it means that you can use phone apps to control them: lights, thermostats, refrigerators, baby monitors, coffeemakers, security cameras, lawn sprinklers, doorbell cams, robo vacuums, and so on.
You can start your car remotely a few minutes before you leave the house, so its heat or A/C has had some time to kick in. You can see who's ringing your doorbell when you're away and even unlock the door if you're expecting them.
So far, though, the Internet of Things has turned out to be the Internet of Poor Sales. At this moment, it's a good bet that you, dear reader, cannot control your washer/dryer from your phone.
But if convenience always wins, why isn't the public eating this stuff up?
Ironically, it's because today's Internet of Things things just aren't very convenient.
The first moments of ownership usually involve downloading an app, creating an account and connecting the thing to your Wi-Fi network. Sometimes that all goes well. Sometimes there goes your Saturday afternoon.
Then you've got the Tower of Things Babel to contend with: The apps don't talk to one another. You must open one app to adjust the lighting, another to change your speakers' volume, a third to tweak the temperature.
The industry knows about these problems. They're frantically developing standards to unify all this stuff. Trouble is, each big company has developed its own standard. There's Thread (from Google), HomeKit (Apple), AllJoyn (originally Qualcomm) and SmartThings (Samsung), among others.
That's right: the very act of trying to settle the standards war has resulted in … a new standards war.
Then there's security. Do we really want to connect our kitchens, heating and cooling, and other home systems to the great wide world of hackers? Especially our door locks?
Now, it's not true that nobody is buying Internet of Things things. Internet-connected thermostats, such as those from Nest and Honeywell, have had mild success. So have the home security cams.
But the surprise hit of the fledgling Internet of Things era is the Amazon Echo: a black cylinder that responds to voice commands, like a Siri voice assistant for your home. From across the room, you can command it to play any kind of music, answer questions, check the weather, and so on.
With each passing month, Amazon has been adding more features to the Echo—and quietly making inroads into the Internet of Things. Your spoken Echo commands can now control your networked thermostat (“Set the temperature to 70”), lights (“Turn off the downstairs lights”), music system (“Play romantic guitar on Sonos”) and power-strip outlets (“Turn on the fan”). It does all this, you understand, without your having to find (or even own) a phone or open an app.
Voice control is, in other words, a breakthrough in convenience—in exactly the place where the Internet of Things is least convenient.
But even the Echo and its inevitable imitators don't fully solve the Internet of Things' problems. Voice control doesn't address the security problems or the initial setup hassles and works only with certain compatible devices. Above all, it doesn't tackle the biggest challenge: that maybe, just maybe, people don't want phone control of their appliances. Sometimes you might as well walk the six feet from the couch.