A few years ago, experts were predicting that by now, every new home built would be a “smart home,” packed with smart devices as part of an integrated network of the internet-of-things (IoT). But there were several issues with IoT—at least as we conceived of it—that led to the concept declining. Contemporary experts are divided, with some claiming that IoT is “dead,” and others insisting that IoT here merely changed forms from what we originally expected.
So where does the truth lie? Is IoT really dead? And if so, what killed it?
The Big Picture
Let’s start by looking at the big picture. IoT is a broad term, referring to any network of connected devices. In the context of a smart home, this might mean all your devices and appliances having “smart” features, like a connection to the internet, the capability to be controlled remotely with a smart device, automatic updates, and backups via the cloud.
But the “smart home” hasn’t really taken off for consumers. Smart thermostats and smart TVs have seen surges in popularity, but there isn’t much interest in other IoT devices, like smart washing machines or smart toasters, nor are we seeing the emergence of strongly interconnected networks in homes.
We are seeing more IoT applications for various industries, capitalizing on RFID chips to track batches of products or utilizing sensors to determine when machines are down. We’re also seeing IoT manifest in homes in less obvious, more centralized ways.
Factors for the Decline in IoT Enthusiasm
IoT has certainly fallen short of predictions originally made by industry experts, but why is this the case?
- Sensationalism in journalism. Part of the problem stems from hype and sensationalism in tech journalism. Tech journalists are under constant pressure to predict the “next big thing,” identifying new technologies that will change people’s lives and/or change the world for the better. The problem is, these tech breakthroughs are rarer than they seem—and technologies rarely turn out the way we would have originally predicted. When tech writers first caught onto the IoT trend, they latched onto it, predicting that it had the potential to change the world, and artificially boosting consumer expectations in the process. What’s slow or fast for a technology’s development only depends on our expectations for it, and in this case, our expectations were a bit too lofty.
- Perceived values. There’s also the problem of perceived value—especially when compared to costs. Upgrading from a traditional refrigerator to a smart refrigerator may cost you several hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on which models you choose, but how much value is the “smart” component really adding? Having a built-in grocery list may marginally improve your quality of life, but it isn’t going to revolutionize the way you live. For the most part, consumers haven’t felt the strong compulsion to invest in the technology.
- Consumer requirements. Some forms of IoT require too much of the consumers that purchase them. For example, getting people to upgrade their current software can be challenging, and those frequent updates are practically necessary for the devices to maintain consistent, reliable operations. Older consumers, or those who aren’t tech-savvy, may also not be willing to learn the ropes of 10 different user interfaces when they purchase ten different smart appliances to bring into their home. A single, universal provider of IoT devices may be able to streamline things, offering a comprehensive interface for all your connected devices, but so far, a leader has not emerged.
- Security and privacy. There are also significant and justified concerns about the future of consumer privacy and security. As far as a hacker is concerned, all it takes is one point of entry to compromise an entire network—and every IoT device serves as another point of entry. Having just one poorly designed or developed device on your network could compromise everything else on your Wi-Fi network. Plus, many consumers are acutely aware of the tracking potential in smart devices; a smart security camera may be able to keep an eye on your home for security purposes, but it may also store that footage in the cloud—making it a target for potential criminals. And every company offering any type of smart device could hypothetically access all your data for advertising purposes.
- Development opportunities. IoT has also suffered in part because it isn’t lucrative—at least on the consumer side of things. Consumers haven’t shown much interest in upgrading to smart devices, which means it often isn’t worth the time or money to develop those devices to begin with. And many of the most successful smart devices (such as smart speakers) are frequently sold at a loss (so companies can get greater market share), so it’s hard to enter an already-competitive market.
- Developmental standards. IoT also never found a foothold in terms of developmental standards. Ideally, we’d have an environment where there were defined protocols for how devices connect to each other, and how they connect to a central hub. But developers can barely agree on what the definition of “IoT” is—let alone work together on a consistent set of standards. That makes it incredibly hard to create devices of independent origin that can work with each other—and pushes more consumers away from the conventional picture of the “smart home.”
The Future for Industry
Industrial applications haven’t been slow to adopt IoT—at least not the way consumers have. Already, IoT networks have become more common and more important for almost every business that requires internal tracking. RFID chips and other small bits of sensing equipment are much cheaper and easier to manufacture than big, lumbering consumer electronics; together, they add more valuable features than any single devices with high tech behind it. Accordingly, vast networks of small components are both cheaper and more valuable for industries to use, so it makes sense that they’d be in heavy use by big companies. The future of IoT will continue along these lines, with devices in the network being small, inconspicuous, and lending only a fraction of the total value of the overall system.
The Future for Consumers
So what about the future of IoT for consumers? Instead of manifesting as dozens of independent smart devices operating on the same network, we’ll instead start to see gravitation toward more centralized devices and apps, and more high-level functionality of IoT devices. For example, smart speakers and “home” devices are starting to become popular because they can allow you to control an enormous number of individual devices—even if they only have a handful of features on their own. We’ll also see more devices that provide big data and analytic insights to consumers, helping them learn more about their big-picture habits (like how they’re sleeping or how much electricity they use), rather than giving them individual features that don’t add much value (like determining whether or not the milk is bad).
IoT may also come in a more integrated, less noticeable form. Rather than buying individual devices with touchscreen interfaces, or homes with obvious high-tech nodules, low-key devices like smart speakers will become center points for an integrated network of chips and sensors. And a combination of wireless internet and wireless electricity will give consumers more control over their environment—without the need to invest in expensive gadgets that only add marginal benefits.
It’s hard to say exactly how the IoT will develop, but this certainly isn’t the end of the line. IoT may not have developed exactly how experts predicted, nor did it develop as fast as most of us hoped, but both industry professionals and everyday consumers will have much to gain in the coming years, as IoT finds its footing and comes to us in some unexpected ways.