The Internet of things is already losing steam

A new survey shows people aren't buying and have very little interest in Silicon Valley's latest 'next big thing'

The Internet of things is already losing steam
Credit: PDTillman

The buzz around the Internet of things couldn't get much louder. But there's evidence that the buzz is a trailing indicator -- and buyers are losing interest in the notion. Even the wearable segment has become a topic of disinterest, now that the Apple Watch has shipped and people know what it is and isn't. 

Worse, it's not that they're tired of the hype. They're disappointed in the actual products, which for most people fall into the home automation category. Many products work poorly or have confusing technologies that keep people away. Industry battles of who will own the user or the home worsen both problems: Proprietary products create integration hassles that make both usage and purchasing much too difficult.

New data market researcher Argus Insights shows how dramatic the falloff in interest -- and the rise in frustration -- has become. Consumer interest in home automation has dropped 15 percent versus a year ago, moving in the opposite direction of the vendor and media hype.

"Based on our review of consumer interest, the state of home automation in 2015 is not looking good for anyone who sells or makes these devices," wrote Argus CEO John Feland. "Even though Google and Samsung made big purchases in this space by buying Nest thermostats, Dropcam, and the suite of SmartThings products, demand is stagnating. It is obvious that the early adopters have bought what they want and other consumers are expressing frustration that these products are complicated and difficult to set up and use."

The two charts below should be a wake-up call to the IoT community.

Argus chart IoT demand Argus Insights

An Argus Insights survey shows that consumer demand for home automation products has slowed dramatically in the first half of 2015.

Argus chart IoT social conversations Argus Insights

Social network conversations on various IoT topics shows a huge drop in interest from March 2015 through May 2015, and low home automation interest for the whole period, according to Argus Insights' analysis.

IoT vendors seem to have forgotten about the people they sell to

That report resonates with me because I began giving up on the IoT notion earlier this year, seeing that most of what is sold as IoT is either relabeled industrial automation or poorly conceived home devices.

I also get the frustration that most consumers face when trying to square the marvelous promises against the product realities. The IoT vendors seem to have forgotten that real customers need real solutions that work.

For example, there's a lot of attention on remote-controlled lightbulbs, one of the dumbest reasons to spend $50, and regular folks know that. They can get two sensor switches for that price -- and not have to fiddle with them once installed.

Then there are all the products that require a proprietary hub, such as the Iris series you see at hardware stores and all the home automation products sold by cable and phone companies (whose horrible service should be cause for everyone to look elsewhere for IoT products). How many hubs do you think someone will install and manage? How many devices do you think someone will replace to become compatible with a new hub?

Smarter vendors don't require the use of hubs. But you have to watch out for proprietary technologies -- this one is Bluetooth, that one is Zigbee -- and for those that require a subscription service you'll never get out of.

Don't forget all those "headless" IoT devices that require a smartphone to set up and use. Smartphones are great remote controls, much better than a hub, but they should not be your only control. You should be able to do the essential functions on the device itself and be able to manage them from a Web browser, even if only within your home network.

Worse, few IoT vendors have designed their devices with security in mind, so they are very tempting entry points for hackers intent on accessing your network or damaging your facilities.

My own choices for good IoT devices

My own home has several IoT devices in it, and I like what they do. But finding ones that would work well was a chore, and I believe most are too complex for most people. 

For example, the Nest Protect smoke detectors are overly complex to set up -- it was a very frustrating experience to network several together. But they do very nice things, like tell you which room's Nest Protect has a low battery so that you don't have to echo-locate the chirping unit. I like that the device will ping you when it detects smoke -- but you won't get that alert if your smartphone is in Do Not Disturb mode, such as overnight. If you're in the house during that time, you'll hear the alarm, but if you're traveling or monitoring a remote property, you won't.

I'm also glad I have the Nest thermometer. The remote control capability is not terribly useful (turning its pretty dial is so easy), and it seems to run cold, but I love how it monitors if people are in the house and overrides the programmed temperature settings as needed. I can also infer from whether it's in Auto-Away mode whether my neighbor actually came into feed the cat while I was out.

The LiftMaster IoT box for my garage door opener is also handy, not so much to open the door from my phone, which it does, but to get an alert if someone opens the door while I am away -- a secondary security alarm, basically. LiftMaster was smart to not use Wi-Fi to control the door itself, so it can't be hacked from outside. But that means it's hard to place the device where there's power and a physical network connection while maintaining radio range with the door controller.

I recently got the RainMachine sprinkler controller, mainly because it monitors the federal weather predictions and adjusts the watering cycles accordingly. That helps save water -- a key issue in drought-stricken California -- and keeps plants alive as conditions change, whether I'm around or not. Considering the poor, VCR-like designs on standard sprinkler controls, a modern UI has big appeal.

For my mom's house, I chose the RainMachine Touch HD device because it has a touchscreen that lets a gardener adjust the settings without access to her network, her account, or her smartphone. For my house, I went back and forth but finally chose the RainMachine Mini-8 model without a touchscreen for setup. It requires a smartphone for use but also has basic on-device controls for manual watering. I don't expect outsiders to need to use the device but still want local control. I may end up regretting the lack of full on-device control, but I figured it was a good test of how much control should be local.

But the RainMachine's network setup will befuddle many users, and setting up Internet access when away from home is not easy for most people. (That in effect makes it more secure, I realize.)

Most other IoT sprinkler controls are completely headless, which is unrealistic for this class of device. And the other two-headed models aren't as thoughtfully designed as the RainMachines: The Orbit Iris timer has befuddling low-tech manual controls, and the pricey Skydrop 8 has a befuddling high-tech interface -- typical IoT user-unfriendliness.

Despite their flaws, all my choices are useful, and they don't depend merely on laziness ("control everything from your couch!") to justify their existence. They actually try to apply intelligence to the environment they manage, which is supposed to be the point of the Internet of things. All my devices work with iOS and Android and have some on-device controls, and none requires a hub or other proprietary ecosystem to be in place.

But they are the exceptions, and that's a big part of why people are losing interest in IoT. Unless something changes, IoT is destined to follow the "digital living room" (remember that from a decade ago?) into oblivion.

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