Everything goes better with Internet. Deep down, that’s probably what’s allowed the Internet of Things to transform from being a visionary concept to an integral part in the product plans of major manufacturers and service providers in less than three years. Over the last 20 years, we've all experienced the benefits of being able to shop online or obtain formerly difficult-to-obtain information with a few keystrokes.
With that experience in mind, it didn't take much of a conceptual jump to understand how connectivity and intelligence would enhance consumer products or commercial equipment. Companies aren't questioning why they need to integrate Internet capabilities, the question is how.
So what works?
Here are some general observations and trends we've recognized and advise to our manufacturer partners:
1. You Can Never Be Too Simple
The overall experience -- from buying the product to connecting it and starting to use it -- can never be simple enough. If the first interaction consumers (or even business owners) have with your product is punching in a series of commands, you’re already falling behind schedule. One of the reasons Nest’s thermostat took off is that the interface is intuitive. It even comes with a screwdriver so you don’t have to get one from the garage.
2. Connectivity Needs to Be Free
The connectivity part of the equation has to be frictionless too. Few consumers and businesses will want to pay for recurring service contracts for connecting each device. Manufacturers are going to have to bundle in connectivity for free or figure out how to latch onto existing broadband networks.
3. The Mobile App Defines the Experience
Consumers, and even business users, fully experience your connected product from the mobile application downloaded to their smartphone or tablet. The mobile experience will be the difference between success and failure for many products. While some manufacturers have clued into this -- the Silicon Valley upstarts often do -- many are not putting enough emphasis on creating an amazing user experience on the mobile.
The emphasis on mobile will also likely change product design. Not only will eliminating switches and buttons allow manufacturers to create cleaner, more modern-looking devices, taking them out will improve maintenance, reduce the bill of materials and simplify the interface. Consumers have dreamed of having a universal remote for years: it turns out they already own one.
4. Ask “What Do They Want to Know?"
Let’s say you make an Internet-enabled commercial air conditioner. The microprocessor embedded in the system will be collecting data on performance and operation on an ongoing basis. Applications based in the cloud will analyze the data for potential maintenance issues.
But what information do you want to give the maintenance manager? Do they want a regular stream of data? Or would it be better to send them simple commands, e.g., develop an app that makes their phone vibrate and glows yellow if a problem seems to be developing. What about the CFO? She may not want daily alerts, but probably could use a weekly report comparing different systems and buildings.
In lighting, for instance, Digital Lumens and Enlighted have come out with compelling software interfaces for tracking energy consumption at a glance.
5. Think About the Data
Automation is only half the story. The product usage data that can being gathered, and the ways in which the information can be analyzed and parsed, opens up a new chapter in the history of knowledge. It’s the new age of Big Data.
Think of the air conditioner example. Not only will air conditioners be able to tell you that they need maintenance, embedded motion sensors will be generate data that can be turned into an occupancy map of a building, or supplement security systems. While automation may help get the public and business buyers excited about the Internet of Things, the long-term value will lie in the things they tell us.
6. Don’t Do It Yourself
If you’re trying to develop your own cloud platform, you’re going down the wrong path. The startup and ongoing cost quickly becomes overwhelming. How do you hire and maintain the staff of technical experts in this? How can you ensure that you don’t get locked into a design that’s inflexible or can’t scale? Manufacturers will turn to trusted platform providers. We saw the same thing in IT. Large companies used to develop all their own systems and data centers. Then they went to third party providers who excelled in these services. The trend continue for them to stop buying apps and shift everything to the cloud.
While the first wave of IoT companies like Nest and FitBit created everything themselves -- hardware, software and cloud – that’s going to become more of an exception, as the rate of market change and need for flexibility and scale increases to a frantic pace.
7. Be Ready to Scale
Build a successful connected product and then get ready to scale. This means a back office architecture that is flexible to accommodate a rapid evolution of product enhancements and releases in the field, and all the tools and dashboards that your operations team needs to manage devices and data as sales deployments accelerate. Again too often, manufacturers don’t plan for success ahead of time, and get constrained by a platform that can’t grow as they grow. Trusted platform providers can really help to ensure that scale is designed in from the start.
8. Security and Privacy Can Kill
Security and privacy are the top concerns among consumer and business users. A very public breach could set the industry back for years. Security has to both be strong (enterprise-class encryption, authentication, and access control), but also simple. If it’s complex, people won’t implement security -- look at how most people still rely on passwords instead of encryption or even fingerprint readers.
Get ready for a wild ride. Periods of irrational exuberance will be followed by short-sighted pessimism. Some business models and technologies will take root while others will fade away. If someone comes up with a good idea, 27 others will copy it.
It’s going to be a challenging time, but it’s also going to be very interesting.
Title image by alphaspirit (Shutterstock)
Editor's Note: Read more from this month's focus on the impact the internet of things is having on customer experience