By: Rob Zazueta
The hype around the Internet of Things (IoT) keeps heating up, with several pundits already calling this the “Year of IoT”. Companies like Philips, Belkin and Quirky - who is working in partnership with GE - are racing to get their connected devices into your home.
The folks at Mashery have been keen on the Internet of Things for some time, and joining the Intel family has only amped our excitement. I mean, have you seen the Quark chip? It’s a Pentium-class computer on a single chip, which means it’s capable of running a full-sized operating system like Linux with little extra circuitry. Look at your thumbnail. Now imagine a small, black square sitting on top of it, but not quite covering it. THAT’S how big the Quark is. Just imagine what’s possible when you have desktop-level computing power crammed into something you can practically inhale!
The capabilities the IoT promises are not new. Early Web users might wince upon recalling the annoying, flashing, ubiquitous X-10 ads that popped up on every site. X-10 was a communications protocol that connected your entire home - lights, appliances, security cameras, etc. - using nothing more than the wiring in your walls. It wasn’t a simple out of the box solution - it required a fair amount of fiddling to set up - keeping it squarely in the hobbyist market. But it inspired many of those people to continue finding ways to make it easier to connect, control and communicate with their homes.
The Nest Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat was among the first of the most recent batch of consumer-friendly connected devices to hit the market. The Internet-controllable LED lights produced by Philips have also received a fair amount of positive press. And Quirky’s series of devices - which includes an Internet-ready egg tray for the fridge - look both attractive and easy to use. For some, these represent just the beginning stages of an amazing, connected and controllable future. For others, like Pando Daily’s James Robinson, they represent humanity’s further slouching toward complete laziness.
"If I can turn a light switch on using my phone," Robinson writes, "in the same amount of my time it takes me to reach over and switch it on, it doesn’t make it more impressive that I used an app to do it."
I completely agree. It’s interesting that you can use apps to control these devices from wherever you may be in the world, but there’s minimal utility in that. It’s small thinking to believe that’s the power of the IoT. Don’t just think “connectivity”, think “interconnectivity”.
Simply receiving an alert when your eggs are about to go bad or run out, as the Quirky Egg Minder enables, is not that useful. Unless, of course, you’re at the store. And your phone knows you’re at the store so it communicates with the Egg Minder to check whether you should buy eggs - all without requiring your input. Or, even better, when you’re planning dinner for the week and come across a soufflé recipe you’d like to try. Do you have the eggs the recipe calls for? A message hovering at the corner of your browser could tell you how many more eggs you need to buy. A push of a button and it’s added to the grocery list app on your phone. Another push, and the groceries are ordered and either ready for pickup or on their way to your house.
Is this laziness? It takes my family no less than 20 minutes to run a few blocks down the street to pick up a couple of things from our local Safeway. The weekly shopping trip itself takes about an hour and a half. Forget the eggs - a crucial ingredient in a number of the recipes we enjoy cooking - and we’re looking at a weekly total of almost two hours. That’s time I could spend playing with my son, preparing the other components for dinner or writing a blog post for you.
The real power in all of these interconnected devices will be in the behaviors they enable. When my lights and thermostat are talking to my Tripit account and know that I’m out of town, they can switch into a low power mode, saving me money and conserving energy. When my garage door opener detects my wife’s cellphone in the driveway, it can open the garage, then turn on the lights leading her to the front door. If I’m concerned about security, I can require she enter a four-digit PIN on her phone that I’ve programmed directly from the garage door opener itself.
Perhaps these uses don’t interest or affect you. That’s fine - imagine what you might want to do and, eventually, you’ll be able to do it. It’s not the devices themselves, but how they communicate with one another and with other sources of information that will drive real innovation. And how will they communicate? With APIs, of course! Giving developers access to the APIs that drive this communication will be a boon for device owners and will spawn the same kind of skyrocketing opportunities we first saw with the Apple App Store.
But it would be a shame if we left this solely in the hands of developers. If interconnected devices powered by APIs and controlled by application developers are the now, consumer-friendly device programming is the future. Sure, you could browse through an app store for the application that comes close to what you need, but what if you could program that behavior yourself? I believe this is the next, next thing in terms of interconnectivity and APIs - user friendly development. Programming interfaces like Scratch and the growing movement to teach programming in schools as a part of basic computer literacy already point to this user-programmed future. What finally emerges will need to be incredibly intuitive and user friendly, as easy to use as a word processor or a social media app.
Imagine what happens when you put a tiny computer into everything you own. Now, imagine what happens when you - not a developer using esoteric code, but you - can program those computers to do anything you want. This is what’s coming. And it’s going to be awesome.
The author - in lego form - still dwarfing the tiny Quark chip (circled in red).