Pitfalls and Perils on the Road to IoT Nirvana

What the IoT Can Learn from Nordstrom

As I sat down to actually write this post I spent a chunk of time staring at an empty page and scratching my head (a risky activity for me given the steadily declining amount of hair still attached to it). What does IoT Nirvana even look like? It’s a dizzyingly broad subject.

From a consumer perspective, I would broadly describe it as hands-on technology that gives me more insight into and control over the things that are important to me. I see at least five significant issues that need to be addressed along the way:

  • Ease of use
  • Security and Privacy
  • Liability
  • Government intervention
  • Evil (Google style)

One App to Rule Them All

One app to rule them all, one app to find them,
One app to bring them all, and in the cloud to bind them” – me

Not a line from Tolkien, but probably only because apps didn’t exist in his time.

Whether it’s controlling the lights in my living room from a hotel in Brazil, wearing a wristband that accurately predicts the moment I’m going to die so that it can alert the coroner to be on hand when the fateful moment arrives, or owning a refrigerator that warns me when my milk expires, there are thousands of potentially cool IoT services available to give me more control over my daily life.

What won’t be cool is purchasing 10-20 different services from 10-20 different vendors using 10-20 different apps with 10-20 different user interfaces. If that’s the way IoT goes, it will be a long tough slog to Nirvana. Lack of standards and a closed product eco-systems will not get us where we need to go.

Brendan O’Brien alluded to this in a post a couple weeks back and I think he was spot on. For IoT to be user friendly, we’re going to need service aggregators – one stop shopping for a wide variety of services, with one bill and (most importantly) one app that integrates all your services in an easy to use interface. Apple seems to be giving this some thought with HomeKit, but their history points to closed eco-systems and Apple-only products.

I’m looking for something a little more open and inclusive than that. I want the ability to pick and choose preferred providers with a single app to run all my services, like an Amazon Prime for the IoT. Jeff Bezos, if you’re reading this, I want a cut. Then again, you’re probably already working on it.

Internet of Things or Internet of Targets?

What the IoT Can Learn from Nordstrom

How secure will our connected homes be? How about our medical monitoring devices?

If it’s connected, it’s hackable. And if it can be hacked, it will be hacked eventually. If you’re lucky, the hacker will just be a kid hacking into your home to turn on your kitchen lights at 3:00am. You’ve been punked, but there’s no real harm. But if you’re unlucky…

A recent study from Fortify found that 70% of the most commonly used IoT devices had vulnerabilities. The most commonly used devices and their cloud components had an average of 25 vulnerabilities per device. 80% of devices tested leaked private information including user names, addresses, date of birth, and credit card or health information. If our lives are going to be more connected, with truly sensitive information available to be hacked, we’ll need better security protocols and practices.

Legally Speaking

One of my favorite quotes from my programming days is, “Designers who try to make things completely idiot proof usually underestimate the ingenuity of complete idiots.” You can’t test for every possible case because you can’t identify them all. So what happens when one of those unimagined and untested cases cause an injury or a property loss, or the exposure of sensitive consumer data?

If McDonald’s can get sued and lose because a cup of hot coffee is actually served hot, what’s in store for the manufacturer of a home management system that gets hacked? What’s the manufacturer’s liability for the pain and suffering involved when that kid hacks your system and punks you by turning on your lights at 3:00am, repeatedly, for several weeks?

The answer is, we don’t really know. I worry that IoT opens the door to a whole new set of legal precedents around product liability and data breaches, and that sorting all of that out will at some point put a damper on innovation.

How Do We Tax It?

The previous issues almost surely guarantee that government will get involved. We’ll have to let them in the door, and once they’re in, they will never leave. That usually brings unintended consequences. Check out Robin Cook’s medical thriller Cell for a truly creepy vision of what government intervention in IoT could look like in the medical field.

And when government gets involved, inevitably the question comes up, “How do we tax it?” In an age where governments at all levels are struggling to meet budgets, it’s almost inevitable that someone within the bureaucracy will look at the vast number of online transactions or data and see dollar signs. Advocates for IoT will need to get in front of this, to ensure that government becomes a partner to innovation and not an impediment.

Do No Evil

Yes, I’m talking to you Google. I want to see how you’re going to balance the whole “do no evil” thing with the unprecedented potential financial gain of being able to detect the sensor in my Nikes or my wrist appliance and provide presence-based advertising in public places, based on massive volumes of data collected from all of my other IoT devices. Cashing in on that opportunity will not make the world a better place.

But IoT, done right, will make the world a better place by providing you more control over your day-to-day life and perhaps making your world a little safer. And that’s a good thing, regardless of what obstacles we might encounter along the way.