LAS VEGAS — It’s not clear what individual gadget will be the next big thing in the tech
industry. But the Internet of Things is definitely already here in a big way.
At events and news conferences in anticipation of the Consumer Electronics Show last week,
everyday devices that have been imbued with tech “smarts” are everywhere. And collectively, they
are starting to supplant televisions, computers and smartphones as the center of attention at the
show, which attracts thousands of companies, journalists and tech fans each year.
Take Tuesday — the annual “Press Day” at CES, when some of the biggest electronics companies
make their preshow announcements — as an example. Press Day used to be dominated by the big
Japanese and South Korean electronics companies, which formed a sluggers’ row with one announcement
after the other, nearly all focused on their latest big-screen televisions.
But this year, plenty of other companies were horning in on the action, many of them touting
Internet of Things advances. Fitbit unveiled a new smartwatch. Qualcomm announced new chips for use
in connected cars, smartwatches and other devices. Meanwhile, Nvidia pre-empted Press Day with an
event on Monday night in which it announced a new chip designed to be the brains inside
Even the traditional electronics companies seemed to want to tout their Internet of Things bona
fides. Samsung announced a new connected refrigerator, which has cameras on the inside that can
allow users to see how much milk is left in the jug, and a 21-inch-touch screen on the door that
can be used to turn off the lights in the house.
Huawei announced a new version of its smartwatch.
LG touted its partnership with Google on developing Internet of Things devices using the search
Part of the reason for the Internet of Things becoming such a big movement in tech is that it’s
benefiting from the success of the previous big trend — smartphones. The rapid advances in mobile
processors have made it possible to produce sophisticated chips that use very little power cheaply.
What’s more, the proliferation of sensors in smartphones — used for things such as cameras, motion
sensors and pressure gauges — has enabled economies of scale, allowing those same sensors to be
used in other kinds of gadgets without adding a lot to their cost.
But the Internet of Things trend also is being driven out of necessity. Sales of the products
that have driven the tech industry over the past 20 years — PCs, smartphones, tablets and
flat-screen televisions — are slowing or even declining. Electronics-makers eager to keep the party
going have been desperate to find new products that will catch fire with consumers.
The problem is, it’s not clear that consumers need or want all these things to be connected or
smart. In some cases, making dumb gadgets smarter will offer consumers convenience or safety. But
in many cases, those benefits might be outweighed by added complexity and cost.
It already can be a pain to keep computers and smartphones up-to-date. Imagine having to do that
with a houseful of smart devices.
Many devices also will require ongoing subscriptions to be truly useful, whether to connect to
cloud services or to get needed features and updates.
And that’s not to mention the privacy and security issues that come part and parcel with smart
devices that collect data on our every activity. Questions abound over how well that data is being
secured, who will have access to it and how it will be shared.
So while the Internet of Things is getting lots of attention, it deserves a lot more scrutiny
from consumers before it replaces smartphones as the next big thing in tech.
Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News.