Whether a company is diving into the Internet of Things head-first or just sticking a toe in, it's obvious that ubiquitous connectivity is the future, yet many entering the market are hostage to a 360º fog and a spinning compass. Staying relevant has meant moving products forward amidst all this uncertainty and making mistakes.
So, how can a company eliminate these mistakes? How can one keep up with the pace of the market and not liberate the coffers of too much cash? In this (occasionally irreverent) conversation, we discuss the value of the IoT broadly across verticals and ways to mitigate risk as one navigates consumer IoT product development.
What’s Driving the Internet of Things?
Seriously. Why the urge to give everything with a power switch a URL? In the industrial and corporate worlds, that’s easy — more knowledge about and control over assets translates to increased operational efficiency and decreased risk. Easy sell. In verticals like hospitality, in addition to more efficiency, connectivity translates to differentiated services such as connected hotel room experiences. Done. And the consumer space? The conventional wisdom would suggest that customers will buy the next widget as long as it has more shiny new features that are in vogue (or just more of the same), but how many customers out there are clamoring to turn their toaster on from their phone? If the popularity of the Twitter handle @InternetOfShit doesn't suggest the answer, then tune into the crickets.
In the past, if a company was shipping a toaster to the world, they had no idea how long it sat on the shelf, who bought it, how long it was used, and most importantly: The company didn’t know how to reliably reach that customer to sell them another toaster — and repeat customers are much cheaper than creating new ones. Enter cheap connectivity. This has changed the calculus considerably.
If a company slams a wireless chip into one of their toasters and markets it as a "smart toaster," then gets users to download an app and connect that new smart toaster, then not only does the company know how their toaster behaves in the world, but they also now have a persistent conduit to the consumer. They can nurture an ongoing relationship that hitherto simply wasn't possible, all with substantial benefit — e.g. engagement, referrals, sales, feedback.
Here's the rub: This all hinges on creating value around a connected experience. And it doesn't seem like a single device alone cuts the mustard. The killer app of the IoT is having everything working together in concert. Will it be thermostats? Will it be locks? Will it be lights? Sprinklers? Garage door openers? Doorbells? Water leak sensors? The answer is ‘yes.’ And regardless of where a company fits in the broader ecosystem, it’s important that their systems play nice with others — much of the value to consumers, and, consequently, much of revenue, will be realized in product synergies that are discoverable through the lens of interoperability.
The problem is, chasing every 'works with' program just to get a product off the ground is both a lot of work up front and tremendous upkeep, so much so that it prices or times most teams out of delivering useful and marketable interoperability. So, it behooves product teams to find tools that isolate the technical complexities — from the languages all these disparate devices speak to the myriad (and sometimes murky) data policies of the OEMs. It's important for the progression of the IoT that we simplify both connecting new devices and orchestrating the wealth of other systems already out in the field.
An idea in the IoT that is long stale is that there would one day be one 'platform' to rule them all — the wireless equivalent of USB. In the consumer space, long envisioned is the smart-home platform that rules the roost — companies could just integrate with it, suddenly have universal interoperability, near ubiquitous distribution, and be done with it. But it’s not shaping up that way and there’s no evidence to suggest that it will. There’s a lot more divergence — don’t be surprised to see hundreds of contenders in the coming years. Point is, the game is completely different — it's not the winner-takes-all days of the "second wave" in Steve Case's lexicon. In this increasingly "rise-of-the-rest" (read: multi-vendor) world, the name of the game is integration.
Fundamentally, what teams need as they craft their integration story, and what we've created at Droplit, is a way to own the brand experience and deliver interoperability that's independent of any one product. It's not enough just to connect a device anymore. It’s also not enough to be able to check off a few ‘works with’ boxes to give the marketing a bit of flair. Connected devices represent ongoing hosting and security costs for a company — it's a dangerous bet to integrate something only to ride the coat-tails of that product's traction. Notoriety in consumer IoT isn't very durable yet, at least not the positive stuff (see here, here, and here), and the uptake of any one product or system doesn't exceed a few percent. Best to hedge that risk with more integrations. Moreover, it’s crucial that companies actually deliver a practical, yet delightful experience — not just one that sounds good in marketing, but one that actually solves consumer problems. The more problems solved, the more entangled in users' SSDD, the more customer retention and repeat business a company can count on, and perhaps more new features to turn into in-app purchases.
A reality to face: there’s no 'works with' brand that rules the world of IoT. There's just not enough cohesive infrastructure out there on which a company can safely bet a product. That road leads to a digital hostage situation. Companies have to discover and create these experiences themselves. Maybe, for example, it’s important that a product integrates with SONOS and Nest and Wemo and have it all controlled by Alexa. There's one reliable way to find out — get out there and test assumptions with users.
Imagine having a toolset that comes to the table with a platform-in-a-box, where a team can come in and check off a menu of integrations and have a fully functional beta in users' hands in days or weeks, and a fully baked product in a few months. Test assumptions. Iterate with impunity. Start product development (software side) at 80% done, and have full control of the brand experience. Then, that team could focus their resources on discovering and creating the features that really matter to customers,whether it's beautiful and simple UI in a consumer product or complex automation and intelligence for an industrial customer. And, perhaps most importantly, they can focus on solving the sustainability problem for their product in a world of ongoing connectivity cost.