Cisco demonstrated an Internet-connected refrigerator at CES. The smart 'fridge knows what's inside. "Each time you finish a carton of juice or deplete the frozen dinners, it builds a shopping list for your next order to the e-grocer."
Ooops. Actually, that's what I wrote to describe the Cisco/Whirlpool smart 'fridge exhibit at the 2000 CES, as published here in Multichannel News 14 years ago.
To be (somewhat) fair, at last week's CES, Cisco's smart refrigerator was communicating via a smartphone. And the intelligent appliance was part of Cisco's "Internet of Everything" (IoE) connectivity juggernaut. But fundamentally, the script and promise was 2000 redux. Cisco CEO John Chambers, in his 2014 CES keynote speech, envisioned a $19 trillion "cost benefit" as the IoE extends from homes to cars to health/wellness services to lighting and trashcans.
Even if we want to believe that the IoE or IoT ("Internet of Things," as it is often called) is imminent, the CES avalanche of ideas suggests some frigid experiences immediately ahead.
Cable operators have their own visions about how home networks will tie into their infrastructure. And as we saw at CES last week, so do dozens of other "smart home" developers, ranging from giants such as Qualcomm, Samsung, LG Electronics and Intel to dozens of start-ups that anticipate a role in this connected ecosystems.
For example, LG Electronics, with its WebOS (operating system), and Samsung's Smart Home both expect to integrate not only their own multimedia and communications devices, but also their major appliances, which were strategically placed in sight within their mammoth CES booths. Samsung's spiel envisions expanded platforms for healthcare products, door locks and "eco-home" applications. Other multi-product vendors, such as China's Hailer, also talked of smart-home digital integration.
Meanwhile, Qualcomm's "Smart Gateway" platform not only marks the chipmaker's move away from its legacy mobile processor business, but a strong surge into connected home devices. Basing its plan on the Qualcomm Internet Processor (IPQ), the company expects to support services such as StreamBoost, which manages network bandwidth and provides carriers with analytics and remote management capabilities. Qualcomm has already assembled its AllJoyn consortium to support such integration.
Even Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, in his CES keynote that focused largely on wearable technology (another big theme in Las Vegas last week), emphasized the importance and value of connecting these "things." Ideas came flying from all directions. Bosch introduced a Bosch Sensortec sensor to use in applications such as indoor navigation, home automation control, personalized fitness services and telemedicine. From toothbrushes to toys, digital peddlers had ideas for machine-to-machine (M2M) technologies.
While this array of opportunities is exciting, the inevitable interoperability question quickly arises. All of the companies say with self-believable swagger that they will work with other manufacturers to make sure devices "talk to each other." That may work for tuners and loudspeakers, but probably not so much for sophisticated networked services -- especially those delivered into the home by a rival technology providers, such as a cable operator or telco.
The standards issue is not a new one for the consumer electrics networking hopefuls. Last week's smart home connectivity promises triggered memories of the efforts by the Electronics Industries Association (at the time, the parent organization of the Consumer Electronics Association) to create a "CEBus" standard nearly 30 years ago. The "EIA-600" set of electrical standards and communication protocols for electronic devices is still on the books, albeit faded away behind today's surge of Internet-centric smart-home initiatives.
Park Associates, the research firm that has promised home automation is just around the corner for the past three decades, issued its latest smart home forecast last month. Parks estimates that in 2017 more than 11 million U.S. broadband households will have some type of smart home controller, up from 2 million in 2013.
And from Wall Street, Macquarie Capital (USA) Inc. observed in a research note timed to CES that as "services expand beyond home security to include automation, smart appliances, and remote access," cable TV operators "are aggressively trying to grow their current 5% share in a market that’s estimated at $13 billion" in annual revenue."
(Yes, $13 billion per year is far from Chamber's $19 trillion, but we're comparing kumquats and durians here, at least for now.)
A recent Forrester Research study found that only 28% of Americans are interested in controlling appliances with their smartphones, and 53% don't care. Nonetheless, IoE optimists see a sizeable market among those who do care.
Perhaps the most important value of IoE is the widespread expectation for connectivity. Yet for now the industries cannot even decide what to call it. Cisco usually characterizes its interconnectivity vision as the "Internet of Everything" while most other vendors are calling the entire eco-system an "Internet of Things." During a conversation a few weeks ago with a Cisco lobbyist, I heard the nuanced rationale for differentiation "things" and "everything" (which Cisco's connectivity products are supposed to delivery.
I'll leave it to my colleague Leslie Ellis to explain the implications and distinctions between IoT and IoE. I did meet one savvy cable exec who at first thought IoT means "Internet of Television," but later acknowledge that was "dumb."
And for those who are still pondering the need for a 'net-connected 'fridge, Cisco CEO John Chambers guaranteed the urgent value during his CES keynote: "2014 will be the transformation pivot point for the Internet of Things," he said (curiously not saying "everything").
I'll check back on his accuracy this time. In 14 years.
Gary Arlen waxes on digital developments from Arlen Communications (www.Arlencom.com).