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Don't Blame the IoT for Lies of Omission

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Dan

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The past couple of weeks have seen a lot of press around Google's announcement that they are shutting down the Revolv automation hub. Many of the articles I've seen use Revolv as an example of the "pitfalls" of IoT. The whole debacle has hurt consumer perception of a market segment still in its infancy and left a lot of people with a $300 paperweight.

But let's be fair - Revolv is an example not of the dangers of buying into IoT but of buying into a closed system. More specifically, it represents the danger of buying into an ecosystem dependent on what I like to call proprietary vendor clouds. I wrote about the evils of IoT cloud dependence well over a year ago with products like Revolv specifically in mind. It's one of the big reasons I created Hobson.

Consumers can't be blamed for not realizing what they were buying into. A company is never going to willingly advertise that their shiny new product becomes utterly useless if they go out of business (or, in this case, get acquired by one of the biggest companies in the world). But it's a lie of omission - it's like buying a new car at a dealership and the salesperson neglecting to tell you that it can only be serviced by their specific dealership or it stops working. Unfortunately, Revolv and Google's own Nest products were in direct conflict with each other and there should never have been any doubt who would come out on top.

Why are these proprietary vendor clouds so evil for IoT? Much of the real innovation in IoT is coming from smaller companies, and according to forecasts, that trend will continue. Well-architected cloud infrastructure is incredibly easy to create using cloud vendors like AWS but it's definitely not cheap to run and maintain. Any company that sells you a hardware product with a "lifetime subscription" tethered to their cloud is betting on one of two things: either their hardware sales will continue to support the cost of maintaining that cloud or that they will eventually charge future customers a subscription fee should their user base grow significantly. Either outcome is heavily dependent on product growth and will leave early adopters in a lurch if that growth doesn't happen.

So what can a consumer do? It boils down to asking the right questions before buying a product. And the easiest question to ask is:

"Is this device functional when I'm at home and my Internet connection is down?"

If the answer is no, then you're gambling that product won't be the next Revolv. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that - you just need to accept the risk.

There is nothing stopping companies from creating products that offer a hybrid model allowing their devices to work locally and through a cloud-based service. Unfortunately, most companies seem to view the IoT as a way to trap customers inside their closed ecosystems. And that is the real problem with the IoT today.

Hopefully the Revolv situation will make consumers much more aware of the hybrid model's importance and the current crop of cloud-only devices will simply whither and make way for hybrid ones that give consumers much more flexibility and future-proofing.


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Thanks for the great article.  I love that you have a diagram showing how Hobson communicates.  It's really hard to figure out otherwise whether a system is based on external infrastructure or not.  I'm really interested in getting Alexa to work with devices inside my home, but the idea of connecting EVERY device, including LOCKS and lights to the cloud seems really stupid to me.  So to turn on a light I need to bounce off some server in the cloud?!  Crazy.  That said, I understand that Alexa uses the cloud to do the voice recognition.  That makes sense because they need to iterate the recognition software easily.  But once that is done, sending a hundred bytes to some device in my house should happen directly from Alexa to that device. 

MikeNPE

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I completely agree with you that the Amazon Echo's model is less than optimal. The capability for the Echo to communicate directly with local Wi-Fi devices clearly exists (the Philips Hue skill does it) but Amazon has chosen not to expose it. I'm hoping this is something they plan to do in the future rather than a conscious decision on their part to force IoT integration into the Cloud. Given that they are a Cloud company, the latter wouldn't be surprising. However, I would see such an approach as an impediment to wider adoption of the Echo as an automation hub. Furthermore, Amazon has a long way to go to effectively support their customers with the capabilities and tools needed to develop and troubleshoot Cloud-based Echo skills.

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