Essays on Technology and Culture

Internet-Enabled Things and Solving the Wrong Problem

There seems to be another fad brewing of Internet-enabling home appliances. This happened before, when the Internet was just starting to become common in homes. The pitch, then, was exactly the same: “imagine if your fridge knew you were low on milk, and it could remind you to pick some up on the way home, or even order milk to be delivered!” Never mind the difficulty of having your fridge tell how much milk is in a container. There's something to be said for unitaskers. Years ago, I caught an episode of The Price is Right from the 70s on cable TV. One of the prizes was a refrigerator with a built in 8-Track player. 1 The first thing I thought was that if the 8-Track player breaks, which they were wont to do, you probably couldn't replace it. A “dumb” refrigerator may not be able to remind you that you need milk, but it is a lot easier to repair when the inevitable happens.

There's two reasons a company tries to wed a new technology to an existing, perfectly good product. One is to spike sales in a saturated market, such as the push for 3D TV a year or two ago, or for Internet-enabled Smart TVs now. 2 The other is because there's some sort of synergistic business partnership that needs to be promoted. 3 In either case, it's not to the benefit of the consumer, but to benefit someone's bottom line and stock price. A third option also exists: to have something to show off at the latest CES so that it doesn't look like the R&D team has been sitting on their butts all year.

Good products are those that solve a problem. Great products are those that solve a problem someone didn't know they had. The best products are those that solve a problem so well that you don't know how you survived without it. The people who promote the “Internet of things” look like they're selling products that solve problems, but really they're just adding complexity that runs the risk of creating new problems. How do you solve that? Replace your $3,700 Internet-enabled Smart Fridge with the latest model, even though it still (hopefully) works as a fridge. Convergence only works when the technologies that converge complement each other. Putting an ice and water dispenser in your refrigerator door works, because you go to your fridge for ice and water. Putting a touchscreen computer that can check email in your refrigerator door does not.

There's some great applications for Internet-enabled home gadgets. If you're a big TV watcher, being able to program your TiVo to record a show from your smartphone away from home is pretty neat. If you like to come home to a properly cooled or heated house, having a Nest thermostat might be worth the time and cost. Those paranoid enough to want a home security system probably would love to be able to arm it from their smartphone. However, I don't see much beyond this in terms of utility. Most people don't want to bother with setting it up, and the geekiest among us will find the limitations of the hardware and software to be more painful and less fulfilling than hacking your own solution. I'm convinced that, in time, most Internet-enabled appliances are going to look more like Honeywell's Kitchen Computer than the actual future of our homes.

  1. In Harvest Gold, too, just in case the 8-Track player wasn't 70s enough for you.

  2. The problem with TV in 2013 is all about content discovery, and the TV manufacturers are going to be unable to solve it any time soon.

  3. Shades of the Motorola ROKR here, but I think Apple only agreed to it to throw people off the scent of the nascent iPhone.