Editorial: At Home with the Internet of Annoying Things

March 01, 2015
March/April 2015
A version of this article appears in the March/April 2015 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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The Internet of Things has already improved my everyday life. Devices that communicate with each other deliver new services and features that I appreciate. However, as the Internet of Things expands from a few linked devices to a pervasive network, I fear that aggravation will soon replace appreciation. Are we moving toward the Internet of Annoying Things?

Not long ago, the great technical obstacle for broadband was the “last mile” from the central switches to the home. The new challenge is the last 10 feet inside the home once the Internet enters the home and connects with dozens of appliances and other devices—the “Things.” Those last 10 feet are about to become the site of a struggle between emerging alliances of manufacturers of the Things that fill our homes—from refrigerators and entertainment systems to lightbulbs and smoke alarms. The alliances include ZigBee, the Thread, Homeplug, and Wemo, all of which have recruited big appliance, chip, or communications firms as members. These alliances promise seamless communication and collaboration among their partner products, bringing new features that will make our homes more comfortable, safe, and energy efficient. Perhaps, but the reality is that our homes will contain products from more than one alliance. Will products from different alliances fully integrate with one another? Will they be able to coordinate their activities? In many cases they will not, and this will lead to dozens of unpredictable incompatibilities related to pairing, backward compatibility, or even the choice of a communications medium. Most alliances require their own communications hub, each creating a new and constant use of power.

Alan Meier (Yasushi Kato)

We become aware of the Internet of Annoying Things when simple devices behave in unexpected ways. Or perhaps they display an annoying alert when everything is just fine. More aggravating will be things that demand a password—which password?—before allowing a task to begin. When devices are unable to connect, they often operate in higher power states, leading to increased energy consumption.

Moving from one home to another could become a nightmare. The built-in networked products (such as the door locks, water heater, dishwasher, thermostat, and smart outlets) will stay with the old home, but the washing machine, microwave oven, and routers will probably go into the moving van. Now imagine trying to install these devices in the new home. The physical installation will be straightforward, but the virtual installation of these devices into a home built around a different alliance will create headaches galore. It will probably be easy to reconnect the big appliances, but the dozens of smaller gadgets—remember the prophetic buzzwords pervasive and everywhere—may require individual, expert attention. I will save my concerns regarding the security of these networks for a future editorial.

PC tower

To be sure, companies will develop interface boxes to allow the different alliances to communicate. These boxes will perform the software equivalent of the familiar “three-into-two” mechanical plugs that enabled legacy ungrounded plugs to be inserted in grounded outlets. Only this time, the incompatibilities will be invisible and more complex. A new specialist will appear whose job is to reconnect a houseful of Internet of Things products to the new network (or more likely, to several networks). I fear that restoring energy-saving settings will be a low priority for this person.

The Internet of Things can’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be stopped, because the services it offers provide genuine value. But perhaps there are ways to make it less annoying. We need to insist that saving energy become easier, not more difficult, and to do this, we must encourage standardization and thoughtful design.

Alan Meier is senior executive editor of Home Energy.

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