If tech firms have their way, everything you use on a daily basis, from your toothbrush to your car, will one day be connected to the Internet.
At this year’s International CES — the consumer tech industry’s annual Las Vegas confab -- you can’t go more than a few steps without hearing someone talking about a way to connect something new to the Internet. But as companies rush to create apps and embed chips in everything from your blankets to your shoes, it’s unclear whether consumers are as hot on the “smart everything” trend. After all, people probably don’t need an alert on their phone to tell them when their toast is ready — the bread popping out is a pretty good clue.
It’s one thing to have a smart appliance that saves you time or money, which is the main selling point for successful devices such as the Nest thermostat. A critical and consumer darling, analysts have estimated the Nest sells around 100,000 units per month. But other smart products have not been so quick to catch on. Companies are tight-lipped about sales figures for smart appliances, but even Whirlpool has admitted that its smart washing machine is " a little bit of a hammer looking for a nail right now." Experts project that the market for smart appliances overall will only reach $5 billion in sales by 2015; by contrast, Whirlpool alone took in around $19 billion in sales for its appliance businesses last year.
And that may indicate a slow market for smart devices, except for the really useful ones. Do we really want to obsessively monitor the updates from a smart diaper, an app-connected toothbrush or an automatic, Internet-connected belt?
For the majority of average consumers, the answer right now is “no, thank you.” In a new survey by Nielsen’s Affinnova group, just over 40 percent of U.S. adults said that the smart products they’ve seen so far seem like gimmicks, and 59 percent said they need real value to spend money on a smart product, not just novelty.
That presents a major challenge for companies such as Samsung, which have thrown themselves wholly into the development of smart appliances and electronics. In a speech Monday night, Samsung chief executive BK Yoon said that he would like to see all of Samsung’s products connected to the Internet within the next five years.
But even consumers who are buying such products appear to want more than just connectivity. They also crave simplicity. Consultancy firm Accenture found in a global survey released this week that 83 percent of people who’ve used smart devices such as fitness monitors, home security systems and even smart thermostats have had frustrating problems getting those devices to work.
Just over one-fifth of those surveyed deemed smart devices “too complicated to use.” Nearly as many also said that they had problems even setting up the devices. And once they did get them working, 19 percent said that they felt the products didn’t work as advertised.
Those problems may be dampening enthusiasm for the revolution that Web-oriented companies are trying to forment -- a trend that analysts predict could rake in over $3.04 trillion by 2020 if firms get it right.
So while enthusiasm for the “Internet of Things” is a hot catch phrase these days in the tech industry, it's still decidedly in its awkward adolescent phase.
To really sell consumers, companies will have to think hard about how to make connected devices useful, safe and understandable to the average person. That’s not to say the “Internet of Things” isn’t going to happen, but it probably requires a little more time at the drawing board, given the products companies in Vegas are pitching this week.