2014 is the year of the internet of things—no, seriously, we mean it this time

Keeping your kids off the internet will be a lot harder when their toys are already in it.
Keeping your kids off the internet will be a lot harder when their toys are already in it.
Image: Toymail
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The first in a series.

It’s fair to say that more people have heard of the “internet of things” than have experienced it. There is breathless press coverage of the phenomenon—always patiently re-explained by tech pundits as the trend by which all of our most mundane possessions will become internet-connected—each time novel, if obscure, inventions make a name off successful Kickstarter campaigns. These are invariably coupled with estimates that the internet of things will be a multi-trillion dollar business.

Yet despite repeated declarations by the technorati that each passing year will be the year the internet of things breaks out, one of the most successful sellers of baubles that help make your home “smart,” Smartthings, has only shipped 10,000 or so units since its debut a year ago. (Compare that to, say, the 360 million smartphones sold in China in 2013 alone.) Remotely-operated light switches and weather-aware fridges may sound fun, but people have yet to be convinced that they can solve any pressing problems. Almost everyone who is actually connecting “things” to the internet remains a hobbyist or hard-core geek—the sort of person whose itch for novelty is satisfied by internet-connected Christmas lights that change color when you tweet at them.

We’re already part-way there

In a sense the internet of things is already with us. For one thing, anyone with a smartphone has already joined the club. The average smartphone is brimming with sensors—an accelerometer, a compass, GPS, light, sound, altimeter. It’s the prototypical internet-connected listening station, equally adept at monitoring our health, the velocity of our car, the magnitude of earthquakes and countless other things that its creators never envisioned.

Smartphones are also becoming wireless hubs for other gadgets and sensors, as well as universal remote controls for your smart home (paywall). “You’re now carrying the perfect tool with you in the form of your smartphone, to stay connected to your physical graph,” says Alex Hawkinson, CEO of Smartthings. (For those who don’t speak Silicon Valley English, “your physical graph” means “your things,” just as “your social graph” means “your friends.” ) “The psychological impact is that consumers are hyper-connected,” he adds.

In this way, your smartphone is a gateway drug for you to enter the next level, in which the internet is “in” your thermostat, lights, door locks, car and wristwatch. Familiarizing consumers with this world, the thinking goes, will lead to what we’ve all been promised: a physical world that’s as malleable and responsive as the virtual one we already can’t live without.

What’s different about 2014

Until recently, connecting a device to the internet of things was expensive and difficult. Smart thermostats, lighting systems and appliances from giants like Samsung and GE communicated through obscure wireless standards that required installing specialized, internet of things-only wireless hubs. But in the past year or so, companies like Qualcomm, Intel and Texas Instruments have created inexpensive, power-efficient chips that enable pretty much anything to connect to the internet via Wi-Fi, or to a mobile phone via a standard called Bluetooth Low Energy. The advent of these chips isn’t so much a product of some groundbreaking technology. It’s driven more by growing interest among startups with novel visions for the future of the internet, as well as giant corporations looking to cash in, or at least not miss out on the next big thing.

The marketing speak about the internet of things alone reflects big companies’ desires to dominate it. Cisco calls it the Internet of Everything, while at GE it’s the Industrial Internet. At Salesforce it’s the The Internet of Customers, and DJ Patil, a data scientist with Silicon Valley venture capital firm Greylock Partners has termed it the The Internet of Nouns. The hype has translated into demand by device manufacturers for the right kind of silicon, and chip makers are piling into the market.

“A lot of these wireless technologies for connecting things have gotten cheap, reliable and low power enough,” says Hawkinson of Smartthings. “Now, the cost of adding connectivity [to an everyday device] is less than $5, and [these processors and radios] can work on batteries for more than a year.”

This enabling technology means it’s possible to buy a lightbulb from Phillips that you can control from your smartphone, a home security system with no monthly fee, or a wristband that tells all the aforementioned gadgets where you are and what you’re up to—all products that have launched in the past year. It’s also making possible gadgets like Toymail, which enables two-way, long distance conversations between adults and toddlers who are too young to converse on the phone.

Toymail’s creator, Gari Nanda, says that when she started designing the toy with her co-founder, she didn’t think it would even be possible to create what she had in mind, much less sell it for a price that would seem reasonable for a toy. Halfway through development, her hardware engineer stumbled into a new chip from Texas Instruments that cost just $15 and did everything Toymail requires, allowing it to both transmit and receive voicemails from the internet.

It’s taken considerable creativity on the part of chip makers to make this possible. In September, Intel unveiled a microprocessor that can crunch numbers and communicate via a wireless radio with as little electricity as what can be found in a glass of wine. It’s a cool trick, but for Intel to sell these small, inexpensive chips en masse, device makers are going to have to be equally creative about finding applications for them with broader appeal.

Smartphones and smart appliances are harbingers of what’s to come

The other, equally important driver of internet of things is that, through smartphones and cheap wireless chips, technology companies may have finally found a way to foist the internet of things onto more people, whether they want it there or not. Companies like GE now consider the smartening of their appliances for the coming era of smart homes to be a selling point to consumers. And in the process consumers discover that they can control their appliances in a way that saves energy.

Smartthings exemplifies this strategy. Rather than selling connected sensors and other gadgets to internet-of-things aficionados, the company is focusing on selling things consumers already understand, like home security systems. Similar systems sold by retail giants like Lowe’s are testing the notion that once consumers experience the internet of things, they’ll want more.

“Our vision is, when we solve a discrete life problem for a couple hundred bucks, we’re then making it easy for you to discover what else [in the internet of things] matters to you,” says Hawkinson. For example, once you’ve bought a system that tells you if an intruder is in your home, it’s less of a stretch—psychologically and financially—to enhance its capabilities so that it recognizes when that intruder is you, and starts adapting the home’s lights and temperature to suit your preference. This means a one-time customer for Smartthings could potentially come back again and again to buy new gear made or resold by Smartthings.

This coming year, the internet of things will be about the convergence of ever-smarter smartphones and connected “things” that are cheaper and easier to use. For example, Apple’s iBeacon technology, which is part of iOS 7, allows any newer iPhone to sense its position in space to the nearest centimeter; anyone shopping at US department store Macy’s this holiday season can try it out. The result: In 2014, there will be countless ways to join the internet of things. What remains to be seen is how many of us are ready to take the plunge.