CES: How Connected is Connected?

Ms Law CroppedYou can’t look at all the stuff coming out of last week’s CES without a slight sense of awe at the ingenuity behind all the smart watches, toothbrushes, brooches, rings, shoes, cars and everything else on display.

My personal favourites were the Lechal haptic inner soles which buzz to tell you when to turn left or right and Sleep Number’s smart bed for kids which keep parents up to speed on how well their kids are sleeping and even adjusts the firmness of the mattress as the kids grow older.

Before we get too carried away with the individual gadgets though, it’s worth pausing for a moment to ponder on the meaning of that word ‘smart’ or, as it’s sometimes referred to, ‘connected’. Many of the devices shown at CES were undoubtedly connected, often working in tandem with an app to give consumers some insight into some aspect of their lives. By virtue of this ability, it’s fair also to describe them as smart.

But how connected does a device have to be to make it truly connected? I look forward to the day when my smart fridge can talk to the grocery app on my phone and put a pack of butter in the shopping basket to replace the one I just finished. But what I would really like is a future where my fridge, washing machine, tumble drier, oven and central heating system can all speak to each other, and to the central nervous system running the house, irrespective of which company happened to make the individual devices.

Format wars
Given that a lot of the companies involved in the Internet of Things (or Internet of Everything as some people now prefer to call it) come from a consumer electronics background, there is cause for concern. As someone who used to cover living room tech in a previous life, the format wars between VHS and Betamax, MiniDisc and the Digital Compact Cassette, and more recently, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray are fresh in my memory. One thing the big consumer electronics companies have not shown themselves to be keen on is signing up to use someone else’s tech when they could be licensing their own.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that two of the other main protagonists in the Internet of Things are Apple and Google, each pushing its own platform. On the eve of CES, Google-owned Nest unveiled partnerships with 15 new companies as part of its ‘Works with Nest’ program. The move saw appliance makers LG, Whirlpool and Philips Hue join the first wave of Nest partners, which included smartwatch maker Pebble. One early by-product of the partnerships is a washing machine announced by Whirlpool that will switch to quiet mode when people are home.

Apple meanwhile, is promoting HomeKit, its own framework in iOS 8 for communicating with and controlling connected accessories in a user’s home. Samsung also has an interest in the connected home, of course, but to give the company its due, it is pushing for a more open framework with its SmartThings platform, following Samsung’s acquisition of the home automation company of the same name last August.

The chances of Apple and Google co-operating on anything are slim, I know, but I hope that the Internet of Things does not become the Internet of Disparate Things That Don’t Talk To Each Other Or Talk To Some Things But Not To Others. Because if that happens, the promise of the Internet of Things, of a connected network of buildings, cars and devices that collectively make our lives smarter, easier and more fun, risks slipping between the cracks of yet another format/OS war. And that would be a shame.