CES 2018 introduced a smart toilet. But the real star of the show was a blackout. How did we get here? And what does that say about the state and the future of IoT?
The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is one of the most anticipated and hyped expos of the year.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have mixed feelings about this show. Don’t get me wrong, I love gadgets as much as anybody, but I’m disappointed by the amount of attention this type of show gets vs. the attention that Industrial IoT shows get.
To be fair, CES presented interesting advancements in autonomous vehicles and made it very clear that Amazon’s Alexa is positioned as the leader in the race to “own” the smart home.
But on the other hand, CES continues to introduce a multitude of products that solve minor problems for niche audiences. Yes, now you can have a smart toothbrush that connects to your phone, a smart mirror that tells you if your makeup looks OK, and, why not, a smart toilet that is voice controlled and plays music. (If you want to see what some people think of these products, you can get an unfiltered perspective on the popular Twitter feed: @internetofshit.)
But even with the large array of “smart everything”, the biggest news at CES 2018 wasn’t the gadgets. It was a large blackout that left the convention center without power for several hours.
Many people thought it was ironic that the biggest electronics show found itself without electricity. But I think the real irony is that a show focused on smart gadgets found itself obscured (pun intended) by the lack of smarts of our electric infrastructure.
I really enjoyed that contrast. You see, the IoT technology that is used to power a smart toilet is the same one that can be used to solidify our electric grid.
Balancing Convenience and Impact
I’m not advocating to stop all development of gadgets or consumer products, and focus only on Industrial IoT applications. Not at all. My point is that we have to have a balance. Today, consumer products get all the media attention, and that’s what most people associate with IoT.
Here’s an example. When students enroll in any of my IoT Product Management courses, they receive a “getting to know you survey”. One of the questions is, “What industry are you most interested in?” The top answer is always “smart homes”.
Once students are exposed to more of the course material, including other areas of IoT, I often hear they selected smart homes because that is the only thing they have heard of. That’s understandable since that’s the only area the mainstream media focuses on.
Now imagine what would happen if there were more awareness of IoT’s ability to address big problems such as pollution, traffic congestion, climate change, availability of fresh water and electricity, stable telecommunications, etc.
For example, students from design and engineering schools are eager to join the hottest smart home startup. It is cool and exciting, and has the promise of making them rich (assuming the companies survive the first year, but that’s another story).
Similarly, investors are drawn to companies focused on convenience, and I’ve seen firsthand how startups with a clever idea for a smart gadget easily get millions in funding while companies developing breakthrough technologies for critical infrastructure struggle to get grants or small investments.
Changing the Narrative
But what if we could change the narrative? Change the perspective? What if working on critical problems could be sexy? I think it can be done, and I challenge every IoT Product Leader to think about how we can start moving in that direction.
For example, 10 years ago, nobody really cared about electric cars. Today, thanks to Tesla, electric vehicles are sexy. And Tesla is one of the hottest companies to work for. Their vision, branding, and excellent products have helped us change the narrative.
Not long ago, Tesla launched the Powerwall battery to power a home. Batteries have never been a sexy topic of conversation, but because of Tesla, now they are. (Did I mention that Tesla cars and batteries are IoT products? Yes they are.)
Another example is GE’s campaign to attract talent. GE, a leader in Industrial IoT, is launching ads targeting professionals looking to solve big problems. Their ad says, “Plenty of people work to give the world what it wants…But who’s working on what the world needs?” I couldn’t agree more.
The Bottom Line
CES 2018 reminded me of Peter Thiel’s quote, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” The Internet of Things has so much potential, and yet it seems we are mostly focusing on convenience instead of on areas that can have a greater impact. It’s like having Superman use his powers only to make money in underground boxing matches. Or was that Wolverine? Not sure, but you get the idea.
As we go into 2018, I invite all Product Leaders to think and act on these ideas. I’m sure we can make progress towards a more balanced conversation where “useful” and “impactful” become the new cool.