In the future, everything will be connected. It won’t just be our phones that access the Internet; it will be our light bulbs, our front doors, our microwaves, our comforters, our blenders. You can call it the Internet of Things, The Internet of Everything, Universal Object Interaction, or your pick of buzzwords that begin with Smart. They all hold as inevitable that everything, everything will be connected, to each other and to the Internet. And that will change the world.
Juniper research predicted that by 2020, there will be 38.5 billion connected devices. IDC says it’ll be 20.9 billion. Gartner’s guess? Twenty-five billion. The numbers don’t matter, except that they’re huge. They all agree that most of those gadgets will be industrial—the Internet of Things is less about you changing the color of your lightbulb and more about companies large and small finding new ways of making their businesses, and your life, easier and more efficient. But the market for connecting the devices you use all day, every day, is about to be huge.
2015 was the year everyone talked about the Internet of Things. (So was 2014. And 2013.) But unlike before, it was the year everyone started making plans, laying groundwork, and building the infrastructure for the day when all our devices are connected. It wasn’t the year those devices took over our homes, but—don’t look now—there are suddenly Trojan horses everywhere.
Did you buy an Apple TV this fall? You now have a Homekit hub in your house, and if you buy a HomeKit-enabled device it’ll be incredibly easy to set up. Have an Amazon Echo? Try saying, “Alexa, turn the lights off.” Actually, that one will only work if you have a Philips Hue set and you’ve already done the work of setting things up. It’s a whole thing.
Which brings us to the real dilemma the Internet of Things is facing as we come to the end of 2015: how the hell are all these things going to work together? Apple has Homekit; Google has Brillo and Nest; Microsoft has Windows; Samsung has SmartThings. There’s Wemo and Wink and Zigbee and Z-Wave and Thread and I’m not even making any of these up. You can control some things with your fitness tracker, some with a universal remote, and pretty much all of them with your phone. Some of the protocols overlap and support each other; others are more exclusive. But there’s no simple plug-and-play option, no way to walk out of Best Buy with something you know is going to work.
Right now, says Frank Gillett, a vice president and analyst at research firm Forrester, people mostly buy single products for a single purpose. “It works if you have a specific headache,” he says. “I want to lock my door, or I want to feed my pet.” He calls these app-cessories. “As a shelf item in an Apple Store or Best Buy, it works. But if you want to make those things sing and dance together, forget it.” Even these simple things aren’t taking off yet: his research shows only 7 percent of Americans partake in even a single smart-home scenario.
Our homes are going to get smarter. But it’s going to happen slowly, Gillett says, at the rate we’d upgrade our homes anyway. “None of us want to go out and do home renovations just to get a dang smart home,” he says. We won’t run out just to buy a smart crock-pot or refrigerator, but the next time we’re shopping for one—which could be a decade from now—we might buy the connected one.
Our smart homes and connected worlds are going to happen one device, one bulb at a time, not in a single motion. But companies know they have to get you into their platform with that first device, or risk losing you forever to someone else’s closed ecosystem. If you bought a Nest thermostat and plugged it into your wall, odds are you’re not switching to HomeKit anytime soon. (Or buying an Ecobee thermostat for upstairs.) The super-cool August Smart Lock works with HomeKit, but nothing else. It’s not that they’re completely mutually exclusive—you can just use your phone to control everything—but few things currently work together in that magical, my-home-just-gets-me way the Internet of Things has promised. Plus, your phone’s a lousy remote for the physical world. “The idea that we’re going to use our phone to adjust the light is bonkers,” Gillett says, “because it’s a lot harder to do it that way than hit the switch.”
It’s possible some regulatory body will decide on a set of standards, or everybody will agree to support everybody else and redundancy will rule the day and redundancy will rule the day. Or, maybe more likely, there will be a breakout smart-home product that finally gives a single platform enough clout to force others to play nice. That hasn’t happened yet, and no one really knows what it’ll be: a smart refrigerator that knows when you need groceries? A really great security system? There are so many nice products in the Internet of Things, but nothing mainstream enough to force the industry forward.
The technology is there. Connected light bulbs, connected tea kettles, connected fridges and fans and coffeemakers and cars—it’s all possible. It’s not perfect, but the parts are only going to continue to get better, smaller, and cheaper. So the question is no longer, is it possible to connect everything to the Internet? Yeah, it’s possible. The question now: How do we do it the right way? IoT companies need to set standards, pick both winners and losers, and come up with ways to make it easier for everyone to get on board.
In 2016, we’ll need to begin grappling with the security concerns these devices raise—having your Target account hacked is one thing, your car or home-security camera is another entirely. We’ll have to understand the sheer volume and intimacy of the data we’re handing over as we go about our hyper-connected lives, and hold our leaders and executives accountable for what they do with that data.
Know this, though: it may be coming like a molasses tidal wave, but the Internet of Things is coming. It’s not a matter of if or whether, but when and how. 2015 was about starting to sort out what these devices will look like, how they’ll work, how they’ll work together, and how we’ll make sure they don’t ruin everything. The tracks have been laid. Maybe it’ll be 2016, maybe the year after, but the train is coming. It’ll have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and probably eight other things, and you’ll definitely get a push notification when it gets here.