Columnists: Alan Meier, LBNL

Published on: 11 Jun 2015

Surviving the Internet of Annoying Things

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 those cute little features will grow into an endless series of small aggravations. Are we moving towards the Internet of Annoying Things?

The Internet of Annoying Things emerges when simple devices behave in unexpected ways.  Or perhaps they display an annoying alert when everything is just fine. One aggravation that I have already encountered is when an everyday device—like a coffeemaker-- suddenly demands a password before allowing a task to begin.  The energy efficiency side of my brain is also alarmed because, when devices are unable to connect, they often reside at higher power states, leading to increased energy consumption.

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 few meters inside the home.  This is where the Internet enters my home and connects with dozens of appliances and other devices—the “Things”.  Those last three meters are becoming the site of a struggle between emerging alliances of manufacturers of the Things that fill our homes: from refrigerators and entertainment systems to light bulbs 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. But the reality is that our homes will contain products from more than one alliance.  Will products from different alliances fully communicate with one another or will a kind of pidgeon English emerge, enabling a partial, unpredictable degree of communication? I fear the incomplete outcome, leading to dozens of unanticipated incompatibilities related to pairing, backward compatibility, or even the choice of communications medium. Energy implications?  More products will reside at higher, “network” modes, fruitlessly trying to contact other devices, giving them information they don’t really need. Most alliances require their own communications hub, each creating a new, constant use of power.

People moving from one home to another should justifiably dread the Internet of Annoying Things. The built-in networked products (such as in 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 unimaginable headaches.  The washing machine, refrigerator, and other big appliances will connect relatively easily, but the dozens of smaller gadgets—remember the prophetic buzzwords pervasive and everywhere —will require individual, expert attention.

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 that enabled legacy ungrounded plugs to be inserted in grounded outlets plugs  (in the US at least).  Only this time, the incompatibilities will be invisible and more complex.   A new specialist will appear whose job will be to reconnect a houseful of Internet of Things products to the new network (or, more likely, 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 also need to insist that saving energy becomes easier with the Internet of Things, not more difficult.  It can be done, but manufacturers will need to embrace open protocols, harmonization, and other procedures that allow Things to talk to each other.

Alan Meier

An earlier version of this appeared in Home Energy Magazine

The views expressed in this column are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of eceee or any of its members.

Other columns by Alan Meier