I can't wait to upgrade my coffee maker to the next version of CoffeeOS—I hear it'll run even more apps.
This is a scenario that's fantasy right now, but it's also just around the corner technologically speaking. It's one of the secret benefits of the Internet Of Things, far more interesting than merely letting your fridge talk to the Internet. And its born of a hybrid between your dumbest household appliances, and some of the cutting edge tech that makes your iPhone work.
A handful of years ago, if you wanted to do even the simplest new things with your phone—play games, take a picture, or a video and so on, you had to buy a whole new phone. We all played this game back then, looking for phones with a camera, or one that could also play MP3s, albeit very clunkily. No surprise then that the average U.S. home has so many old, unwanted cell phones tucked away.
And then "smart" happened, and smartphones changed all that. Because they're essentially small pocket computers, today's smartphones can have a whole new OS uploaded into their system so that though the chips inside that do the math and graphics and take photos are the same, the capabilities of the phone can be significantly improved. In some cases, the new OS and the new third party apps it enables can even improve your phone's battery life.
This is one of the best benefits of a smartphone versus a dumbphone.
The Internet of Things is happening right now—a slow-breaking wave of technology that will see some of the smarter bits of smartphone tech (such as wireless comms, tiny low-power CPUs, flash memory, and motion sensors) inserted into everyday objects to make them magical. Lightbulbs, garden sprinkler systems, security systems, thermostats...even your front door lock. The first generation of these devices will probably change your life in hundreds of subtle ways.
And then you'll upgrade them with new core operating software, or the devices themselves (each one packed with sensors that let it sample the world) will learn how to understand you better. Rob Coneybeer, venture capitalist and Internet of Things expert, explained to Fast Company that it's almost as if smart devices will be "evolving over time, getting better—not worse." That's an inversion of the use case for most non-smart gadgets you own today, which are great when you get them but then they age, or a new device comes out that's cleverer. "If you think about what's going on, these [smart] devices are learning," Coneybeer pointed out, "they're networked so they can learn from other devices and then they can act. They can get feedback on their actions, so basically they're learning to get better with time. Nest is a perfect example—it learns about your preferences in temperature, and it starts to take guesses on what to do. So it gets better, and the longer you use the software the more you like the device."
Essentially we're used to machine-learning algorithms in some of our technology right now, with systems like Nest, or Apple's Siri voice assistant getting smarter and better at understanding accents and natural language commands over time. But with every smart Internet of Things device, there's the opportunity for the device to learn by itself, and also for the makers to upload a better machine-learning algorithm in the next OS update. That means, according to Coneybeer, that a smart devices could over a period of "six months later, two years later get better and better, to the point where you like it more than when you bought it."
Liking a gadget more because it can now do more and understands your needs more than when you first had it is pretty amazing, especially when you picture devices that today are dumb, single-purpose systems. Like a brand-new smart coffee machine that, after a couple of OS boosts and a lot of time using its motion sensors to look at beans moving through its system, can actually grind your coffee more delicately and has a better program for frothing milk.
The implications for monetizing these gadgets, and the impact this sort of innovation will have on the buying cycle—let alone on the environmental impact of smart consumer products—will, it seems likely, be huge.
While upgrading the core functions of your smartphone is amazing, it's really the new, more powerful apps that make using your phone better. It may turn out similarly for smart devices.
Coneybeer pointed out that while the innovative smart light bulb technology and its ilk are "pretty interesting," the real opportunity "will be in a year or two when somebody writes really cool applications for what you do with it." Using the example of the Philips Vue light bulbs, one of the first commercial-scale Internet of Things devices targeted at the home, Coneybeer noted that "Philips did a good job of packaging in an iPhone app that's fun to use: You put a picture in and you put pushpins in the colors you like, and then it lights the bulbs up in the color."
But it's a tech that's begging for clever use far beyond this initial scope. Coneybeer told us about one thought: "I had this idea where on Election Night I was going to install the Philips bulbs in my office in the ceiling. And then turn them on to match the color of the American Flag." And an even smarter app would've been able to pick up data as the results came in, slowly turning the lamps from red to blue. And this is where there's at least opportunity for monetizing your smart gadgets: What if Coke paid for an app for your room lamps to turn to Coca-Cola red during an ad spot on TV?
It could happen. The Internet of Things, after all, gets a little more clever every day.
[Image: Flickr user jimmyweee]