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How does the IoT Evolve? In Fits and Starts

It has been quite a week for IoT in the news. The shutting down of Revolv by Nest became a major news item, covered by everyone from Fortune, CNET, Computerworld, NBC, and Yahoo just to name a few.

The headlines summed up the market reaction:
The time that Tony Fadell sold me a container of hummus
As Google shots down Revolv, anxiety about the internet of Things gears up”,
Nest in damage control following Revolv shutdown plans”.

Or my favorite:
Nest Revolv and the Internet of Broken Things”.

As usual, Stacy Higginbotham did a nice job in writing about what could have been done instead to make this all easier.

As background – Revolv was a small start-up in Boulder, Colorado. I know a lot about the team there, and like them a lot, so I admit to some bias up front. They built a smart home hub with seven radios to speak to 10 of the most popular smart home protocols.

They started with Z-Wave, Wi-Fi, and Insteon active, and other protocols were to be turned on over time. Revolv includes a phone app enabling users to connect to the hub from anywhere because it was all cloud-connected. It went on sale in 2013, and then Nest bought Revolv in October 2014. At the time of the purchase, Forbes noted that the hub had been moving slowly in retail, but actual sales numbers are not available.

Nest stopped selling the Revolv hub at the time of the acquisition but continued to provide support and functionality for existing customers.

We can see on Amazon that Revolv had 114 reviews and rated 2.2 stars out of 5. About 20 of these reviews are recent, including a 1-star review based on the shutdown of the service or lack of support since Nest took over. There were clearly some users who bought the product and loved it based on the online comments and reviews, as well as some posts lamenting Revolv’s closure. Even those who posted reviews loving the service indicated it needed a fair bit of work to add functionality and robustness before it would be ready for more mainstream use.

So why did the shutdown of a product and service from a relatively small start-up with relatively low volume generate such widespread press coverage? And why do some of the articles focus on “damage to the IoT?”

I believe there are a few reasons for this unusual media attention:

1. Google and Nest – People love to write articles about Google and Nest, and lately it seems like negativity is fashionable. Just a few years ago glowing coverage of the smart home’s bright future was common. Nowadays, we see coverage about all that can go wrong. As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle, but that makes for a much harder story to write.

2. IoT – It also seems to be a trend to write negative articles about the IoT. To be fair, industry trends have made it relatively easy to go negative. It’s rare for a week to go by without another story highlighting the “Internet of Threats” or failures of IoT devices. It wasn’t that long ago when many articles were being published about the advances in functionality that can be provided by over-the-air software updates in Nest Smoke Detectors or Tesla cars. This was touted as one of the benefits of IoT – that connected devices can be updated to fix real problems or to add new features. What a wonderful world of IoT!

3. Ownership – The fundamental issue that became so difficult here is that the shutdown of Revolv reflects how our ownership of a device can change in the world of IoT. If I buy a screwdriver and bring it home, it is mine to use, and no one can take it away. Even if I buy a PC and take it home and never let it perform software updates, it’s still functional. On the other hand, if I buy a device from a start-up that provides cloud connectivity and the start-up goes away, my cloud connectivity goes away and my device may stop working.

The first two reasons for this trend of negative press isn’t as interesting to me as the third one when talking to people about products and how they design them. For me, it comes down to why we use standard protocols and services.

Here’s a simple example: I buy my internet service through supplier V, and they provide me with a home router. I have 35 devices connected to that home router. Yesterday I decided to switch my internet service to supplier C. Supplier C comes in and provides a new home router. I log into the new router and put in the same SSID and password from my old router. All my Wi-Fi devices work fine and do everything they used to do – i.e., there’s not a lot of work for me to do.

But what if I have 35 devices connected to my Revolv hub and I decide I don’t like their service anymore and want to use someone else? I get a new hub and I have to recommission all my devices, setup all my rules, and the “if this, then that” scenarios. Now my connected home is back to normal, but that’s a lot of work to switch service providers.

So I have a different set of lessons from Revolv:

1. The industry needs to converge on openly available standards that provide users choice in devices and service providers if IoT is going to be successful. I think IP-based solutions have the easiest path here because of the lack of requirements for special-purpose gateways and bridges like the Revolv box. Open protocols between devices is the beginning of this trend, and cloud services are the next step to allow consumers to have real options between service providers.

2. Requiring the use of cloud connectivity for local device control is not a good idea. This means the local Revolv box can operate and function independently. Consumers who liked the Revolv box and its existing functionality then realize they are never getting new features, but it keeps operating until the customer decides to stop using it.

3. Being an early adopter means you sometimes get to suffer a bit and eat the cost of some hardware. I have installed and removed many home automation systems in my house. I installed them because I really wanted to try them and play with the services and functionality. I removed them because I travel too much, and when I am on the road my house has to continue to function for the rest of my family without me being there to troubleshoot issues as the resident “IT department.” Too often the early IoT products work “most of the time,” and for me, that means they get removed from service.

We can all agree the IoT has been hyped and overhyped. Now it’s fun to write articles on the death of the IoT and vastly lower all the projections. One thing that has stayed constant in all the upward and downward hype cycle is the steady growth of connected devices. The reason for this is simple: consumers and businesses find that connected devices provide more features and functionality and a better user experience, saving money and time.

However, consumer expectations remain the same: they expect a light switch and bulb to work flawlessly every time – even if controlled through an iPhone when the internet is down.

Skip Ashton, VP of IoT Software, Silicon Labs

Image Credit: A-Image / Shutterstock