Unless you think of technology as a geeky hobby unto itself, giving an Internet connection to everyday objects might seem like a waste of energy. Who needs really needs an online toaster, anyway?
But just as the Internet was easy to underestimate in its infancy, this new push to connect everyday devices—a concept known as the "Internet of Things"—is barely representative today of what it might become tomorrow. And the parallels go beyond just potential. Today's Internet of Things faces a lot of challenges and setbacks reminiscent of the Internet of the '90s.
If tech firms can get over these hurdles, the effects could be just as far-reaching. I spoke with some of the Internet of Things' biggest innovators to find out what smart homes, smart cars, and other connected devices must do to transcend their current forms—and what the world will look like as a result.
A common criticism of today's Internet of Things is that it doesn't have a "killer app" to push the concept into the mainstream. But maybe it doesn't need one. The Internet never had a killer app either; it just got better tools to make sense of all its disparate parts.
Zach Supalla, CEO of Spark, a company that sells hardware kits for quickly building new connected products, points out how the unstructured nature of standalone websites eventually gave way to portals like Yahoo, which tried to categorize these sites in a sprawling directory. Then came search engines like Google, whose PageRank algorithms figured out exactly what you were looking for through keywords. The Internet of Things is still waiting for that kind of invention.
"Someone else will figure out a better way to do it, and we'll all be like, 'Oh, that's how it was supposed to work the whole time,'" Supalla says. "But that doesn't have to happen up front. We can figure that out as we go."
Some tech firms are already racing to make that magical connection.
For Nest, the key is automation, made possible by lots of connected devices working together on your behalf. Mike Soucie, the head of product partnerships for Nest, gives an early example: Today, a Nest Learning Thermostat can recognize whether you're at home through motion sensors and algorithms. Just the basic "Away" scenario can trigger all kinds of automation on other devices, such as an occasional fluff cycle on the clothes you left in the dryer.
"We think that there's a ton of devices vying for your attention, so we are really working hard to put the technology behind us," Soucie says.
The next step, Soucie says, is to come up with a wider range of states. Nest might some day recognize that the whole family is on vacation based on the location of everyone's phones, and set up a lighting pattern that mimics actual behavior. It could also tap into wearable devices like Jawbone to determine who's home and where they are in the house to maximize comfort.
"It's going to be through use, and pattern recognition, observing habits, and surfacing features over time that automatically just work in the background," Soucie says.
If Nest's algorithmic approach brings search engines to mind, you can almost see a hint of Web 2.0 in human-driven services like IFTTT. Just as sites like Wikipedia and Blogspot changed the nature of the web pages through constant user interaction, IFTTT is leaning on user-created "recipes" to figure out how smart homes should really operate.
"I think one of the things we're starting to really notice as an industry is that everyone is incredibly unique in terms of the services and the products they surround themselves with," says IFTTT CEO Linden Tibbets. "No one is going to have the same car, the same clothes, the same refrigerators, and microwaves and all this stuff. And no one really uses the same unique set of Internet services, either."
Today, IFTTT—which recently renamed its signature app as simply If—lets users mash together web services in ways their creators never anticipated. For instance, you can set up Nest's Protect smoke detector to text your neighbor when it recognizes an emergency, or get a call from your SmartThings sensor when your teen tries to open the liquor cabinet. But Tibbets knows that these are geeky hacks for early adopters. IFTTT is essentially using them to find the edge cases, with hopes of building a system that feels personal and much easier to use.
"I think what's quickly going to happen is we're going to say, 'actually, that's valuable,'" Tibbets says. "And no one could have hypothesized—without actually having an Internet-connected fridge, or Nest thermostat, or Sonos—that that would be valuable until someone actually tried it and thought about it and presented it to the world."
Smart homes and other connected products won't just be aimed at home life. They'll also have a major impact on business. And just like any company that blissfully ignored the Internet at the turn of the century, the ones that dismiss the Internet of Things risk getting left behind.
Some companies are already paying attention. GE, for instance, has been putting sensors in industrial products such as wind turbines, which can then figure out the most efficient orientation, or determine maintenance needs without sending a technician all the way up the tower.
"We are talking to companies in energy, in transportation, in any number of basic industries, where huge efficiencies are possible," says Peter Coffee, Salesforce's vice president for strategic research. He believes that this trend will only continue through the arrival of smaller, cheaper, more reliable sensors, not just for large industrial hardware but for everyday products like clothing and hand tools. For example, a sensor in a hammer could let workers know the best time to take a break, and fitness trackers built into a shoe or T-shirt could help people decide exactly what exercise apparel they need before they even walk into a store.
"Internet of Things is mainly interesting because the way someone is trying to get something done can be measured, reported, and analyzed, and turned into guidance for what would make a product more useful," he says.
It's possible that these technologies will render the traditional salesman or factory manager obsolete, but Coffee believes this only makes it easier for humans to focus on more necessary skills, like pattern recognition. As an example, he points to Trunk Club, a men's online clothing service whose personal stylists draw on vast amounts of data to make recommendations to their customers. Even if a stylist has hundreds of clients, it can still feel like you're walking into a small-town store where everyone knows you.
"The appetite for people to do what people do really well is greater than ever, in the same way that power tools make a good craftsman capable of doing more, not less," Coffee says.
Even if tech companies have big dreams for where the Internet of Things can go, there are still some practical hurdles in the way.
One of the most basic is actually getting all of these devices to talk to one another. The industry is in the middle of a full-blown standards war, both in terms of hardware protocols and software frameworks. This isn't a perfect parallel, but jumping in now is vaguely reminiscent of choosing between AOL, Prodigy, and CompuServe in the early 1990s.
"One of the biggest threats that's out there is if companies don't work together to develop a broader standard," says Brett Worthington, vice president and general manager of Wink, a maker of both hardware and software to connect lots of different smart home products. "If we create a bigger mess than what's already out there around interoperability, then we're going to waste the biggest opportunity in a category of growth."
There's also the question of what happens to all this data that's being collected and interpreted, and how all these devices will stay safe from remote attacks. Most companies will gladly tell you about their military-grade encryption, and their transparent data collection policies, but IFTTT's Tibbets doesn't think it's that simple. The best practices for security and privacy won't really fall into place, he says, until the industry figures out how people are actually using these devices.
Tibbets compares it to the early days of the web, which saw "a decade or more of unrestrained value" before patterns and standards around security started to emerge. "So one of the things we need to learn from is, once we learn from that value piece—which is really crucial, otherwise you're going to have a really secure thing that no one uses—that very next step has to be the follow-up, how to understand that value, and how to secure it," he says.
Even with these hurdles cleared, the bigger explosion for Internet of Things may only occur with cellular connectivity, just as smartphones kicked off a major growth spurt in general-purpose computing. Spark is trying to get things started with Electron, a kit for building Internet of Things devices with their own data plans, but CEO Zach Supalla said getting wireless carriers to break from their traditional business models has been challenging.
Supalla believes that large-scale products, like Tesla's electric cars, will be the most successful at adding wireless service at first, but he's optimistic that data plans will work their way down to smaller devices over time. "Every bike should be connected, so you can figure out where it is when it gets stolen. Bikes get stolen all the time," he says. "Once you're into less expensive products like that, it's going to become more ubiquitous."
Of all the people I spoke to, Supalla pushed the parallel with the early Internet the hardest, and he warns against the view that the Internet of Things market will always be targeted at "hyper-nerds."
"One of the things I see when people are talking about Internet of Things in general, is this feeling like, 'This is just what it's going to be. That's the beginning and end of the market,'" he says. "But I think that's how the Internet felt in 1992, and we're in that beginning part, and it's really hard to figure out exactly how it's going to play forward."