If the “Internet of Things” is going to live up to the hype, hardware developers will need to fully embrace the metaphor and all it implies. Let’s be honest, most projects these days are a variation on a theme: take a few sensors, add a 2.4 GHz radio, think up a snappy name, and claim to be “the world’s first <really specific application>.” However, despite the underlying similarities, each has its own custom app and interface, making it impossible to design a common “browser” that allows users to navigate from device to device.
If this landscape sounds more like cable TV than the Internet, that’s because it is. Providers are competing to herd users into their particular walled-garden.
Some day, a central authority will define a common standard like what the Bluetooth SIG has done with their heart rate profile (among many other examples) and things will improve. In the meantime, hardware developers continue making grand promises that assume they succeed in the winner-take-all competition for users.
As a backer, this is a HUGE leap of faith – even if the product ships, we may receive only a shadow of its potential usefulness, like buying a media player to find out it only plays HD-DVDs. And unlike retail, crowdfunding has no refunds and no returns.
There are countless examples. iFind‘s UHelp feature depends on a critical mass of users running the app, for example (just like Lapa and every other BLE tag). But I want to pick on Nymi, the wristband that will make keys and passwords obsolete, but only if they can convince device makers that typically require keys and passwords to use their interface instead. The very core of their product depends on widespread adoption.
In the campaign, Nymi demonstrates their device unlocking a variety of devices, from the lock screen of a Windows computer to the trunk of a Tesla Model S. To state the obvious, a desktop computer is very different from a car, and unlocking them are very different processes. Since it’s extremely unlikely that every device Nymi wants to support will use the same “unlock me” interface, custom software must be written for each and every one.
Nymi is left with two unpalatable options:
- Write custom software for every little thing themselves
- Beg developers to do the hard work for them
Guess which one they chose:
Can you blame them? As a startup with a tight budget, I doubt the first option even crossed their mind. It simply doesn’t scale.
But why would anyone bother to write an app to interface with the Nymi? A few will do it for fun, for the challenge, or so they can use Nymi with their favorite gizmo. However, the strongest motive is always going to be profit. (Ain’t capitalism grand?)
Which leads us to the Catch-22: there’s little incentive for device-makers to interface with Nymi until there are enough users to matter, and there’s little incentive for users to buy a Nymi until there are apps to make it useful. No one would be writing Facebook apps if no one used Facebook.
Keep in mind that these business and marketing challenges are IN ADDITION to all of the risks inherent to hardware development.
The solution is to agree on a standard software interface for all user authentication (and location data, and activity-tracker data, …). If that sounds like a tall order, that’s because it is, but the payoff would be tremendous. We could waste less effort trying to reinvent the wheel/activity tracker and instead focus on the more interesting and useful challenge of finding personal insights in all this new data. That’s the great promise of the “Internet of Things,” but we’re not going to get there with a thousand different SDKs.