CES has always been a show about crap. More than half of everything you see there will either never hit the market or will fail dramatically. Every category has their examples – for storage you’ve got DataPlay and MiniDisc. Remember 3D TV? How about Palm’s WebOS? Microsoft’s Spot watch. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.
But this year, the crap quotient seemed way beyond 50% – to perhaps 80% or higher. In fact, you could almost change the name from the “Consumer Electronic Show” to the “Crap-tastic Electronic Show”. Heck, we even had booth after booth of selfie sticks, along with clones of products that had already failed. Exhibit one: Toshiba, who dedicated its prime booth real-estate to launch its competitor to the widely reviled and dying Google Glass – cunningly called “Toshiba Glass”. No one was interested – at least as far as I could see.
Side Note: Has any company lost its way more completely over the last few years than Toshiba? It used to make great notebook computers, wonderful TVs and even some pretty decent home appliances. Now the company is simply a sad but comical after-thought. My take: it’s karma finally paying back after the Toshiba Submarine Scandal from the latter days of the cold war.
But I don’t blame CES. I blame crowdfunding, and the stampede to cash in on the consensus “Next Big Thing” – the Internet of Things (IoT). But after a mind-numbing roll around the bowels of the Sands Expo center, I’m on board with my friend Mike Feibus’ observation that it’s time to rename IoT to IoC – the Internet of Crap.
Why do so many hucksters, shysters, and starry-eyed dreamers flock to the latest overhyped technology advances? And why is it happening now? This whole concept of connecting devices to the Internet has been around for years – in fact I launched the websites “ExtremeZigbee.com” and “ExtremeZWave.com” back in 2005 – proving yet again that I’m always ten years too early.
But suddenly the entire IoT space is filled up with self-proclaimed “experts” who couldn’t tell a “Do Loop” from a “Froot Loop”. They’re leading tours of the show floor, starting advisory businesses and raising cash on Kickstarter to push their latest Internet-connected steaming piles of digital dog poop.
I saw $400 smart doorbells that will be targeted by thieves as the easiest heist they’ve ever made. Smart washing machines that presumably tackle your biggest dirt problems by consulting the cloud (“You sure are washing a lot of bloody clothes today, Ms. Barraza”). Kitty-litter boxes that tell you when Mr. Whiskers is feeling blue. The “One Ring to Bind Them All” that hoped to control all of our wireless devices, but ended up enraging nearly all of its Kickstarter backers. And smart lights that will enhance your Molly-infused fever dreams while feeding your light-bending secrets to a series of servers in Russia.
Nothing embodies this crazy gold rush more than the fact that the “Shark Tank” show held an open casting call for inventors on Day 3 of CES. Sure, your crazy IoC dream will never make you a dime, but you might just earn 15 minutes of fame for your trouble!
I’ve seen this migration to the next big thing time and time again. Back in the early nineties everyone suddenly became a networking expert, as companies large and small wired up their computers to each other. In the latter part of that decade it was the Internet’s first big boom, until sadly Webvan and Pets.com led that bubble into a catastrophic immolation. And who can forget the social tsunami of 2007-2010, where self-proclaimed social networking experts commanded six-figure consulting engagements to set up Twitter accounts and Facebook pages.
In each of these cases, the subsequent bust triggered a panicky run to the exits, as the charlatans and shysters looked frantically for the next big thing – and in most cases ended up selling real-estate instead.
So before you get all giddy about the Internet of Things, here are a few sobering realities to keep in mind that will make the road harder than today’s starry-eyed predictions, and will probably cause a big uptick in licensed real-estate professionals in 2016:
- Connectivity: All these Internet connected devices need to somehow actually connect to the Internet. Many of them plan on using low-power 2.4Ghz wireless schemes – including Bluetooth, ZWave and Zigbee. Unfortunately, 2.4Ghz is just about the most crowded, noisy and unruly radio spectrum available today. Home wireless, microwaves, phones, a wide multitude of devices are all grasping – and overlapping – on top of each other. It’ll be tough for many of these devices to actually talk to the Internet reliably.
- Power: To do that, these new devices need to crank up the gain on those little radios to be heard above the din. And that takes more power. But to be successful, these “things” will need to run weeks or months without being charged up. Wireless charging technology could help – and we saw two of the three competing standards merge together at CES this year. But still – two competing standards are a great way to stunt a growing market. Just ask Zigbee and ZWave. Until there’s one wireless charging standard, or a tremendous battery break-through, power will remain the bugaboo of IoC.
- Compatibility: Speaking of standards, when it comes to “Internet of Things”, the landscape is wide open. Every John, Dick and Boo-Keun has their own walled-garden of middleware to tie all these devices together, and of course they won’t talk to each other. Do you really want to buy your exercise band, health monitor, refrigerator, light bulbs, smart car, heating and cooling controllers and smoke alarms from Samsung? No, I didn’t think so. But smart devices get awful dumb when they can’t communicate together.
- Security: This is a big one. Protecting, managing and controlling access to your personal data is going to be a huge trend over the next few years. Do you really want a house or car full of digital busybodies, reporting on your every bender, sugar orgy, “Toledo Window Box”, or other peccadillos to the “cloud”? Didn’t think so. Heck, we’re even seeing hackers infiltrate our baby monitors, light bulbs and other devices – turning them into profane megaphones or zombie botnets. That’s all got to be fixed before most people jump on board
If you’re looking for real insight as to where IoT (or IoC) is going, there are a few folks that have been tracking this market for far longer than the last lunar eclipse. My friend Greg Kahn has been working with media and entertainment companies for years in this space, while my former Chairman of the Board at Revision3 – and former Digg CEO – Jay Adelson is setting up a venture fund to tackle the real problems here – interoperability and middleware – rather than all that flash and sizzle.
True experts are few and far between. But as the hype-bubble around IoT bursts in the next 18 months, those with the insight to truly understand this market – along with the tenacity to keep with it – will be the ones that finally succeed. And by then, hopefully, most of the crap will have decomposed.
Hmmm. Maybe there’s a killer device for this category after all: the IoC Dung Beetle.