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Walled Gardens Are Killing the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things is a vision of all the devices around you seamlessly connecting to each other and to you in a way that turns life into magic.  Your toaster will talk to your fridge, which will talk to your phone and automatically set reminders to buy more bread.  Your bathroom mirror will talk to your car to give you weather and traffic warnings before you even get behind the wheel.  The Internet of Things will weave a seamless tapestry of connected devices into your life.  Except that it won’t… if things keep going the way they are.

With the tech world rapidly embracing the Internet of Things, large manufacturers of digital appliances are rushing to create internet-connected versions of everything from light bulbs to watches to cooking pots.  But even as we enter 2016, widespread standards for Internet of Things devices are nowhere to be found.  Worse, each manufacturer is effectively creating its own walled garden with features and protocols that only work with branded devices and apps, leaving consumers left struggling to figure out which expensive new device will work with the ones they already have, or how to connect things without jumping through hoops.  While good for getting products to market quickly, this is rapidly creating nightmares for end users.

For example, Samsung’s internet-connected fridges (RF4289HARS) touted integration with Android apps as a major selling point, but when Google updated its calendar API, the calendar app on the fridges was useless for months until Samsung issued an update [1].  In April of this year, the popular Wink Hub smart home controller spontaneously stopped working for many users, rendering their smart home devices useless until a fix was published a day later requiring a manual update [2].  And more recently, Philips shut down the ability of third party internet-connected light bulbs to use its Hue hubs, and then quickly backpedaled amid outrage from the tech community [3].  With examples like these, we can assume that as connected devices gain more traction, these types of situations will arise with increasing frequency, which is a poor proposition for customers who expect things to just work out of the box.

Unfortunately, the current Internet of Things is beginning to resemble the “smart” phone ecosystem of the early 2000s.  If you don’t remember what that was like, every phone manufacturer had its own line of phones and apps that kind of worked, but never well, and definitely never with each other.  It took Apple and Google to upend the status quo, but even today Android and iOS are two separate ecosystems.  Looking forward a year or two, it seems likely that your coffee maker might talk to your alarm clock, but only if they’re both made by Samsung and someone remembered to update the firmware to the latest version.  Rather than a future where all the devices around you seamlessly connect, it appears that instead we may have multiple walled gardens with their own proprietary apps and services.  And an Internet of Things future like that will do little more than frustrate users who want true utility from the devices they purchase.

The upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in January 2016 holds some promise for defining and showcasing the competing Internet of Things standards [4], but the real test will be whether or not manufacturers actually open their platforms.  It’s no longer enough for devices to be running proprietary operating systems that may never get updated, or for devices to only be accessible via dedicated smartphone apps.  For the Internet of Things to truly bring the magic that it promises, both software developers and hardware manufacturers have to open the gates to their walled gardens and let the tech community as a whole bring new innovation unfettered by artificial restrictions.



[1] https://productforums.google.com/forum/#!topic/calendar/UhfpcwO0X0c

[2] http://www.engadget.com/2015/04/19/wink-hub-bricked-dns-fix/

[3] http://techcrunch.com/2015/12/16/philips-hue-reverses-decision-to-block-third-party-light-bulbs/

[4] http://www.pcworld.com/article/2994794/internet-of-things/iot-standards-groups-get-ready-to-rumble-at-ces.html

Michael Dorazio