CES 2016

How long will consumers put up with the IoT's failures?

At CES, experts warn that interoperability, networking, and cybersecurity issues could threaten the potential of the Internet of Things.

CES 2016 internet of things smart home security
Credit: thinkstock

A recurring theme undercutting the enthusiasm surrounding the Internet of Things and smart home at CES this week has been how the shortcomings of the technology could hold back the market. How long will consumers put up with products that don't work, fail to connect to the network, or put their privacy at risk?

A panel of IoT support experts speaking at CES today explained that, while some of the better-known products, like Google's Nest thermostat, are designed with easy setup and connectivity, many others fall short in important areas. Since consumers aren't always necessarily equipped to resolve these issues on their own, these concerns threaten to hold the IoT market back from reaching its lofty projections.

Lee Gruenfeld, vice president of strategic initiatives at Support.com, said his company had an "appalling experience" when it began researching smart home products for support opportunities. It didn't take long for them to find products that were too difficult to install or failed to work as intended. 

The difference between IoT products and the PCs that Support.com has historically supported is that consumers don't necessarily need to buy connected appliances, Gruenfeld said. Consumers are more willing to withstand problems with setting up and maintaining PCs, laptops, and smartphones because they are essential devices. Most consumers don't need connected home products, so they may be more willing to abandon them at the first sign of trouble, Gruenfeld said. 

Jeremy Hill, vice president of product management and marketing at tech support company Radialpoint, pointed out that many consumers seek out connected home products because they expect them to make their lives easier in some way. But when they encounter interoperability or connectivity issues that require support, they can become discouraged when they find that the purchase became a liability.

A handful of issues are contributing to the problems with connected home products. Stuart Rench, CEO of Ihiji, pointed to what he called the "Kickstarter economy" when describing the desire to be first to market with an attractive-looking product. In the rush to push out a product, some companies may overlook important interoperability factors.

Ratul Sengupta, vice president of client engagement at Sutherland Global Services, attributed many of the issues to the broad range of standards currently being used in the IoT industry. For the time being, the market is full of products that rely on different standards. Gruenfeld suggested that the standardization issue isn't likely to go away soon. While each standard has its own strengths and weaknesses, they're all trying to solve complex problems, he said. That makes it difficult for the industry to agree upon one approach.

Mika Majapuro, director of product management for IoT at cybersecurity firm F-Secure, warned about the long-term impact of hacked devices on the market. This problem already plagues the industry, with dozens of brands of connected home security cameras being hacked over the past few years and their live video streams made available on the internet. These are devices that people buy to help make them feel safer, only to find that they've invaded their privacy.

"Whether it's this year or next year, you'll see returns. And it won't be because of a problem with the device, but that the devices are hacked and people are not happy with that," Majapuro said.

Even seemingly benign smart home products like kitchen appliances can be targets, he added. While hackers aren't necessarily interested in controlling a toaster, these devices could be their way onto the network where they can find more valuable data. 

Majapuro said that he wouldn't be surprised if startups and smaller companies in this space end up going out of business after suffering a hack, as the loss of trust could ruin their reputation in the market.

These are all important concerns for an industry that many experts expect to explode in the coming years. Gartner has predicted that the typical family home will contain as many as 500 networked devices by 2020. If the market is to make it to that point, these issues will need to be addressed.

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