OnQ

Developing for the Internet of Things

Mar 10, 2015

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

“I wish we’d never called it ‘smart.’ If I have to update the firmware on my blender, how is that a smart experience? Someday all of these objects will communicate, but in the meantime, it takes people to tinker with them. Calling things smart when we’re in this phase will just delay mass adoption.” — Matt Spolin, Sproutling

Remember when mass adoption of mobile apps seemed so far away? If you feel nostalgic for those days, try developing for the Internet of Things. It turns out there’s still a fair amount of head-scratching and experimentation to getting the IoT humming along, especially in consumer applications.

Noah Harlan of Two Bulls, a developer of immersive mobile experiences, moderated a recent panel of executives whose companies have commercialized IoT products and are selling them to consumers. Like creating a mobile app, developing for IoT means you’re tied to hardware, but in different ways. Unlike creating a mobile app, the wave of widespread adoption has yet to break, so there’s a lot of educating (and tinkering) to do.
I’ll summarize some of the details from the discussion.

Consumer Applications

All four panelists represented products that any consumer would recognize:

  • Mark Belinsky, CEO and Co-Founder of Birdi — Birdi is a smart smoke detector that also tracks air quality with a variety of sensors for factors like CO2, temperature, particulate matter and dander. It sends tangible, actionable messages to your smartphone.
  • Gabriel Bestard-Ribas, CEO of Goji — The Goji is a Wi-Fi connected smart lock for managing access to your home. It takes photos of people coming through the door and sends them to your mobile phone.
  • Simon Walker, Head of Marketing at LIFX — LIFX is an energy-efficient LED light bulb that you control from your smartphone over Wi-Fi.
  • Matt Spolin, Co-Founder and CTO of Sproutling — Sproutling makes a smart baby monitor that can sense and learn a baby’s behaviors, then offer useful predictions and suggestions to parents.

While all panelists develop consumer products, they have divergent experiences and perspectives on IoT.

What’s At The Heart Of Developing For IoT?

Belinsky conceded that, with a life-and-death product, it’s not enough to be right most of the time. “Most consumers are so annoyed with malfunctioning smoke detectors that they remove the battery or take them down altogether,” he said, then adding that Birdi has to do better than that by making sure its product works right all the time and doesn’t malfunction.

For other panelists, controlling everyday objects over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi isn’t the hardest part. Spolin said that a baby monitor can and should be more than just a remote microphone that encourages parental hovering. He considers it his job as CTO and developer to “build a cognitive computing system that brings context into IoT” and helps people be better parents.

Bestard-Ribas said his company has looked beyond door locks. “We realized that consumers don’t have a problem with keys,” he said, “but they do have the problem of feeling secure about managing access to the home.” He has steered development of Goji to respond to the consumer problem rather than to simply connect things.

Walker of LIFX noted that IoT developers are still constantly trying to prove that their products are as reliable as they were before they became connected; until the reliability problems are solved, the entire industry will be tarred with the same brush. Harlan mentioned the paradox of early adopters and laggards: “The type of person willing to pay $100 for one of the first IoT light bulbs is willing to accept a sub-par user experience, but the laggard who pays $5 for it two years later demands that it work flawlessly.” All IoT developers have to navigate those expectations.

How To Distribute And Commercialize?

Panelists also had different perspectives on distribution, with Goji, Birdi and LIFX opting for crowdfunding and Sproutling for traditional channels.

Given the target demographic of new parents, Spolin believed that the early-adopter appeal of crowdfunding would not work for Sproutling. His company started by selling direct so that it could control its brand, and it plans to add third-party online sellers later. Regarding those early adopters, Walker noted that “Amazon is not the ideal place to go looking for them, because Amazon buyers are not necessary willing to accept product shortcomings and they are very sensitive to negative reviews.” He also notes that it’s tricky to get the point of an IoT product across at retail.

Bestard-Ribas found two big advantages in crowdfunding: It let Goji introduce itself to retailers early on, and it gave the product international exposure it would not otherwise have had.

Will IoT Ever Appear Unified To The Consumer?

Most things in technology are not unified – cellular standards, operating systems, hardware architectures – but widespread adoption eventually leads to a papering-over of differences so that phone calls can go through and documents can be exchanged. With IoT, it won’t be there for some time.

Harlan sees IoT at the same stage as VHS and Betamax, but adds that for the moment the standards on all sides are more open and less proprietary than in the videotape wars. “But if consumers at the store have to check the label on an IoT product to see which home OS it works with, we’ve all lost,” he said. “We’re at the worst moment of it, when every product has its own respective app.”

Belinsky counters that there is no great harm in having so many apps. His Birdi app will not go away, he says, because the app is where user experience and value grow over time and with more use. The problem is not in having a lot of apps – in fact, people like apps – it is in having a lot of different fiefdoms that hamper interoperability.

Next Steps

What are you seeing out there? Have you developed a real, live IoT app yet? What does your company think is at the heart of IoT? Let me know in the comments below.