The pros and cons of the Internet of Things

Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ high-tech home  features an estate-wide server system where guests wear pins that automatically adjust temperature, music, and lighting based on their preferences upon entering a room (photo credit: Jeff Wilcox, flickr).Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ high-tech home features an estate-wide server system where guests wear pins that automatically adjust temperature, music, and lighting based on their preferences upon entering a room (photo credit: Jeff Wilcox, flickr).

oon yeohBy Oon Yeoh

Buzzwords come and buzzwords go. The phrase “The Internet of Things” is currently very much in vogue right now. In a nutshell, it refers to how the Internet and connectivity among household items can improve our quality of life.

Actually, the phrase itself is not something new. It’s widely credited to technologist, Kevin Ashton, who came up with it in 1999 while working at Proctor & Gamble. The notion of devices being Internet-enabled and thus becoming “smart” devices has been around for easily as long.

A glimpse of how such smart devices can come together to form a smart home could be seen in Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ high-tech home. The house features an estate-wide server system. Guests wear pins that automatically adjust temperature, music, and lighting based on their preferences upon entering a room.

I guess the reason “The Internet of Things” is suddenly on everyone’s lips is that it’s only now that the notion of connected household devices is starting to become a reality. Though still expensive, and still a long way before they become mass market, one doesn’t have to be a billionaire to afford such things.

Smart refrigerators that are Internet-enabled have been available for years but they do little more than allow you to browse on a panel that’s Internet enabled. That’s hardly what “The Internet of things is all about”.

What would really make a refrigerator “smart” would be if it could read tags and alert owners when their food is about to reach their expiry date, for example. Or perhaps it could refer to an online calendar and make orders on a regular basis for certain items to be delivered. Such a fridge is still not here yet but it could be really soon.

A commonly cited example of a smart device that represents “The Internet of things” ethos, which is already available, is the Nest thermostat (bought by Google), which adjusts heating and cooling based on usage patterns and billing rates. For good measure, it can be controlled through a mobile app. The company also has a smart smoke detector.

This idea can be extended to all kinds of devices, including washing machines, ovens, doors, windows, air-conditioners and even beds. But while such futuristic devices may sound like cool things to have, there are many potential drawbacks to “The Internet of Things.”

For one thing, compatibility of devices could be a problem. As such, homeowners would be tempted to buy most of their devices from one brand. The AllSeen Alliance, a non-profit organisation that champions “The Internet of Things”, is trying to ensure that all major brands make products that are compatible with each other. But that’s not an easy to thing to achieve.

Even for something as established and as simple as Bluetooth, which is supposed to work equally well across devices, there are issues of compatibility. Trying to program a universal remote control for multiple smart devices, could prove to be a hassle that a typical homeowner would not want to deal with. Most people don’t even like to deal with their broadband modem and router.

Then there’s the privacy and security issue to think about. A connected home could be vulnerable to attack by hackers and who knows what they could do with the information they are able to access during the attack. If you think that by having a Facebook account you run the risk of losing your privacy, imagine what a fully-connected home would be like. The more connected your home is, the more it’s susceptible to hackers.

That said, the notion of “The Internet of things” is something unstoppable. More and more devices will become Internet enabled, not less. Gartner estimates that by 2020, there will be some 30 billion connected devices. IDC is even more bullish and expects there to be about 200 billion connected devices by 2021.

Like all things in life, there is the good and the bad side of things. And so it is with the Internet and “The Internet of things”. As smart, connected homes start to become a reality people will have to learn to deal with its implications, positive and negative.

Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant.

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