Early Internet of Things innovator gets a makeover and a new name: Cosm. It's attempting to become more social, but unfortunately it's likely to turn normal people off - rather than turn them on.
When we first started profiling the emerging trend of Internet of Things back in 2009, one startup stood out as an early innovator in the field. It had an unpronounceable name, Pachube (pronounced: Patch-Bay), but it was the first independent, open platform for sensor data. This week Pachube announced a new name - Cosm - and a redesign that attempts to make the service more social and easier to use.
The internet of Things is the catchphrase for when real-world objects - such as buildings, roads and household appliances - become connected to the Internet. Often it's via sensors, tiny microprocessor chips that record and log data such as sound waves, temperature, movement and so on.
Our first review of Pachube was just over 3 years ago. Over the following couple of years, Pachube attracted a small but enthusiastic community of developers. Pachube was subsequently acquired by cloud computing service provider LogMeIn in July 2011.
Internet of Social Things
Ten months after acquisition, Cosm (nee Pachube) is now targeting the social Web. Founder Usman Haque commented, in an email newsletter announcing the re-brand, that it is "focusing on helping people connect with each other as well as their devices." He added that "we aren't just building behind-the-scenes infrastructure."
Haque explained further:
"The idea of the internet of things needing a piece of equipment (a 'patch-bay') has become less useful than the concept of it involving shared 'workspaces' and 'environments' ('microcosms' and 'macrocosms'). Cosm has an even bigger vision than Pachube: we want it to help people, teams, companies & cities build, share and make sense of their own 'cosms': devices, environments, communities."
The problem is, the new design still emphasizes the "behind-the-scenes infrastructure" and the service is still too hard for normal people to use.
Cosm (which is a fantastic domain name, I wonder how much it cost?) is organized around the concept of a console. This is where you monitor feeds from real-world objects, either your own or other peoples. Cosm is hoping that you'll spend a lot of time following feeds of other people, such as team members, friends or family. Here is a screenshot of Usman Haque's console:
Haque has feeds monitoring his home, office, weather stations, power generators, plants and more. There is even a feed monitoring his Twitter account. Twitter is by far the easiest way to get started with your own feed in Cosm, but unfortunately I got an error when I tried to add my account.
In terms of following people, I managed to follow Usman ok - but I couldn't click on any of his activity. I don't know who his 15 other followers are or what comments he's made elsewhere on Cosm. This may be a design glitch, but if not then it's not particularly social.
Still Too Geeky For Mainstream
The problem Cosm has is that it's not very accessible to non-technical people. I'm fairly technically savvy - about as technical as a non-developer gets - yet when I browsed around Cosm I was dismayed at how little I could do. I couldn't even add my own feed, because the Twitter functionality wasn't working. I don't have any Arduino projects (basically this is an electronics DIY kit), so I didn't have many other options to create a feed.
I did follow Usman, as he'd linked to his console in the email newsletter... but how do I find other people to follow? As noted above, I couldn't even see who Usman himself follows. I certainly can't imagine any of my family or non-technical friends using Cosm. So I'm mystified as to how Cosm is more social than Pachube was.
However, This is The Future...
I'm being a little hard on Cosm, because I was expecting something more user friendly. However, I still buy into the vision for Cosm. In the not too distant future, we will indeed manage various feeds from household and other devices. As I wrote in my original review 3 years ago, one of the original goals of Pachube was to "open up the production process of smart homes" - to provide an alternative to products by the likes of Microsoft and Apple.
But for mainstream users, Cosm will need to become much, much easier to use. Otherwise the likes of Microsoft and Apple will win out. That's already the more likely scenario, regardless of Cosm's geeky user interface. But if Cosm is to have any chance at a wider user base, it needs to do more to encourage non-technical people to use the service. It also needs to help people understand the benefit of hooking up your plants (among other things) to Cosm. Right now there is little explanation of why I'd want to use Cosm in this way, let alone how to use it.