Industry Insights

Smart Devices - What Makes Them “Smart”?

Just because it has a network connection doesn't mean it's "smart". Truly smart devices provide valuable services.

James Schaefer
January 14, 2017

Lately, smart devices have been synonymous with anything that’s network enabled. Whether that be lights (Phillips Hue), thermostats (Nest), or even toothbrushes (Prophix). But it’s more than just the abilities enabled by connecting a device to internet that make it ‘smart’. It’s a combination of services, trust, and ease of use that make a smart device a better choice for a consumer than a dumb one.

Smart Devices Provide a Valuable Service

In a previous post, I explored how the Internet of Things isn’t about the things, it’s about the services you can offer with those things. Whether that service is as simple as the ability to schedule turning lights on and off from your phone, or as complex as energy saving algorithms that control your HVAC system as optimally as possible, without an associated service any ‘smart’ device is really just a remote-controlled device.

A valuable service is what sets Nest, a smart home integrator and energy saver, apart from an application like Kinsa, an app-driven thermometer that tracks user health.

While both are internet-connected devices, Nest leverages that connection to do something a thermostat couldn’t previously do, namely use machine learning to understand your preferences and how best to save on your energy bill. On the other hand, Kinsa doesn’t use its network connection to do anything that couldn’t be accomplished by a thermometer and a notebook. It’s not that it isn’t helpful, it’s just that it isn’t particularly ‘smart’.

Beyond simple services, a smart device (or smart service) should make use of the network effect for more complex services. With more data comes more power, and knowing how to harness that data for greater benefit is critical. For example, a single pair of smart shoes can track when you run and for how long. A network of several thousand users wearing smart shoes and generating data could be used to diagnose issues in your running gait, suggest insoles that may make you more comfortable, and help generate realistic goals to improve the speed and duration of your runs.

Smart Devices are Trusted

In addition to the raw capabilities of a device and the corresponding services, earning and keeping trust is essential to an IoT product.

It’s often difficult to know whether smaller IoT companies have the staying power to maintain the services that make a device smart. The Revolv Hub and Zano Drones are examples of companies that closed shop and stopped supporting their services. These examples serve as reminders that the Internet of Things is still an emerging industry where your favorite manufacturer might not be around 5 years from now to support your device.

For IoT device to be smart investments for people, consumers must be able to trust that a device will be supported long enough to warrant the extra cost. Most people won’t change their thermostat for years, perhaps decades, so they need to be confident that their thermostat won’t just stop working one day because of something out of their control.

Smart Devices are Easy to Use

Finally, in order for a device to be truly smart, it must be easy to use. This may seem obvious but many manufacturers seem to be missing the basic value proposition of their connected devices.

Mark Rittman’s Twitter account famously documented his 11 hour quest to boil water with a wi-fi kettle. There’s a lot to be said for the phrase ‘It just works’ that Apple campaigned on for so long, and it’s definitely a needed area of focus for the smart device industry. In order for a device to be smart it needs to be more like the Apple Air Pods setup, and require fewer troubleshooting guides.

It’s high time we stopped calling everything that’s connected to the internet “smart”.

Mark Rittman’s Wi-Fi enabled iKettle turned out to be more bug prone and less convenient than a regular water boiler. The shutdown of the Revolv Hub left thousands of users with useless devices. Kinsa’s thermometer fails to take advantage of all of the potential advantages of the data network effect. None of these devices are truly smart devices. They may have minor conveniences or may have been good purchases in the short term, but it takes more than that to be a smart choice for consumers.

James Schaefer

VP, Product Innovation

James's responsibilities include identifying patterns of problems that can be solved by new Leverege Platform features, designing and building those features, and helping his fellow engineers use them in applications. When he isn't heads down in a new database software or learning a new templating language, James enjoys rock climbing, hiking, and brewing beer.

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