The flaw in the 'Internet of Things'

Yes, more and more devices will be connected to the Internet, but beware of the inane ideas being proposed

The "Internet of Things" is back, with a sudden explosion of commentary about how it's The Next Big Thing. It was The Next Big Thing about a decade ago as well, but turned out not to be. Maybe it's back in the air because people are excited again about mobile tech innovations such as the iPad and are looking for more things to make exciting. Maybe it's a secret plan to get people to finally care about IPv6 and IP address shortages; after all, if everything is connected to the Internet, they'll need IP addresses, of which we're running out in the traditional IPv4 form.

For probably the same reason the pundits' view of the future always has flying cars and talking computers, the examples for the Internet of Things are household appliances: refigerators that order a new carton of milk and laundry machines that call for service when needed. If you think about it, though, these are silly examples that reflect lack of thinking: How will that carton of milk actually find it way into the fridge, and how often does the washer need servicing? And would you spend several thousand dollars to replace these items for the alleged convenience?

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Empowerment doesn't come through automation
My InfoWorld colleague Lisa Schmeiser suggested the key insight that these people are missing: The effective service providers of the last decade haven't removed the user from the equation but gotten users to do the work of the providers -- and enjoy it. That is, the user feels (and often is) empowered even though he or she is doing more of the work.

Think Amazon.com and pretty much all e-commerce. What these providers do is give users a lot of information and control acccessed over the Internet, and they create a relationship (as digital and fake as it may be) with the user that keeps him or her as a happy customer through a sense of command and direct fit.

That's a better way to think of the Internet of Things: a medium for user-specific self-service. If your fridge is connected to the Internet, it won't be to order milk but to help you compare your dinner ideas with what you have in stock. If your washer is connected to the Internet, it won't be to call a repair technician (who knows who it will pick or how that person will get access to the house) but to let you know your washing patterns for insight into possible ways to save water and power. That's the promise of those so-called smart power meters, though in practice they seem to be secretly designed to increase customers' bills, not empower them to use energy better; instead, they serve as a cautionary tale of how not to do the Internet of Things.

I'm also dubious about the robo-nanny form of the Internet of Things, which today keeps coming up as the example of medication that has embedded RFID chips so a "smart," Internet-connected pill bottle can monitor whether patients take their meds. (It turns out half of patients don't take their medicine regularly, which is thought to increase overall medical care costs as they get or stay sicker than they should.) If you miss a dose, you get a call or text message. Reminders can be great, but this smacks of Big Brother -- and it's a slippery slope I'd rather not build. Why not just issue these people a time-release patch instead?

Forget the vision of anything with a power cord being connected to the Internet so that it can act autonomically. If that's your goal, it appears that you really want to remove people from having a role in day-to-day life (as caricatured in the movie "Wall-E").

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