The Internet of Useless Things

I don’t believe in the internet of things.  That is, I don’t believe that there is any value proposition in the near future (let’s say 5-10 years) that would justify people spending lots of money in really quickly spreading network interfaces on all kinds of stuff.  It seems clear that there will be some kind of increase in the amount of stuff that will be networked, but I just don’t see why it will be a big, dramatic important THING, rather than a few minor, disconnected use cases here and there.

Daniel Miessler disagrees with me, and he writes that “[p]eople are colossally underestimating the Internet of Things.”  So I was interested to hear more.  He continues, “It’s not about alarm clocks that start your coffee maker,” which seems like a good start, because that’s exactly the kind of gimmicky stuff that makes me think that there is no fundamental value in the IoT.

Miessler goes on to basically say that the IoT’s value will be:

First, that businesses and restaurants and places will have APIs that allow some intelligent agent on your person (your smartphone, more-or-less) to automatically perform actions that will make your life better.  His examples are:

[Your smartphone or whatever will] order a water when you sit down to eat at a restaurant, send a coffee request (and payment) to the barista as you walk into your favorite coffee shop, and raise the temperature in any build [sic] you walk into because it knows you have a cold.

So…  That sounds kind of a lot like your alarm clock talking to your coffee maker to me.  What if I want a different than usual order from my coffee shop?  Is it really the case that I’m going to be able to change the climate control of a whole building just by walking into it?  That doesn’t seem scalable.  And, seriously, while I may literally want a glass of water every time I sit down and eat at a restaurant, who on earth would pay money to make it mildly easier to get your glass of water at a restaurant?

Miessler’s second item is that there will be some kind of reputation currency, where you can, you know, say that so-and-so is hilarious, or a bore.  And while that sounds a bit like hell to me, it may well come to pass.  But it has roughly nothing to do with the internet of things, or any kind of increase in connectivity.  It just means that people will take Facebook even more seriously than they do today.  You don’t need to put a highly locative network everywhere in order to pass judgment on people via social media.

His third item is one near and dear to every geek’s heart:

Augmented Reality will enable us to see the world with various filters for quality. So if I want to see only funny people around me, I can tell Siri, “Show me the funniest people in the room.”, and 4 people will light up with a green outline. You can do the same for the richest, or the tallest, or the people who grew up in the same city as you. You’ll be able to do the same when looking for the best restaurants or coffee shops as you walk down an unfamiliar street.

Let’s tackle the last item first.  Augmented Reality could presumably indeed show you the best restaurants or coffee shops on an unfamiliar street.  But you know what else could do that?  A plain old location-aware search on Yelp or Google Maps or whatever.  And there are three big advantages to just using Google Maps instead of schmancy augmented reality goggles that highlight shops as you go by:

  1. 95% of the time, when you’re walking down an unfamiliar street, you don’t actually care what the good restaurants and coffee shops are.  You aren’t hungry, you’re just going someplace.  When people talk about this kind of heads up display, they kind of get into the headspace where you actually care about the items to be displayed, but most of the time, you don’t.  So you either deal with completely useless annotations on everything all the time, or you get out your input device and toggle on “restaurant reviews” when you’re actually hungry.  At which point…  why not just do a location search on Google Maps?
  2. A location search on Google Maps will also tell you if the best restaurant in 1000 feet is around the corner, or behind you.  Why do you want to have to hike past each store just to see what the best one in the area is?
  3. And of course you can do the location-aware search without all this expensive investment in the Internet of Things.  It works today, with just a smartphone and absolutely no investment in network infrastructure from little restaurants — which aren’t exactly bastions of technical progress, after all.

A lot of the same objections apply to Miessler’s ideas about people.  For conservatively 99.9% of all the people I’m around, I either don’t want to know anything about them (because they’re random people on BART or whatever) or I already know much more about them than any augmented reality interface is going to tell me (because they’re my friends or family).  The number of times when I might conceivably want to know who Facebook thinks are the four funniest people in the room is pretty small.

The thing that we don’t have that we might want is the ability to see someone’s Facebook profile just by virtue of physical proximity to them.  You can definitely see that there is a niche for wanting to read that information about other people — if such an interface were available, people would avail themselves of it.

It’s harder to see why someone would want to publish themselves into such a feed.  I imagine that young women in particular would feel like it’s an open invitation for every creepy guy in a five block radius to stalk them.  It’s in general pretty difficult for me to see what the upside would be for me to not be able to exercise any control into who sees my Facebook profile.  Surely it’s all around better for me to decide that I’m willing to show off my digital presence to a selected individual, maybe through a quick NFC handshake?  If what I’m specifically interested in is broadcasting my availability for hook-ups, well, Tinder already exists.  What’s the value prop for the rest of this?

And outside of the scenario in which everyone suddenly decides that it’s cool for the creepy dude across the street to have access to their Facebook profile, this again doesn’t need the Internet of Things.  I can do everything else here — up to and including the NFC handshake that gives selective access to my Facebook — without a multi-trillion-dollar investment in network infrastructure thousands of times bigger than what exists today, plus some ultra-precise, ultra-prevalent locative network.  Heck, even if we do decide to become a world of letting everyone see everything about you, it’s probably easier and cheaper to do it via facial recognition and boring old searches with boring old smartphones than with the IoT.

The Internet of Things is a solution in search of a problem.  Specifically, it’s the most insanely expensive solution ever proposed in the history of computer infrastructure where even when people think ahead to fanciful future applications, they still can’t come up with a value prop worth spending $100 on.

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