When talking about the Internet of Things, it’s important to remember that the “internet” part is just as critical as the “things.” That my sound cryptic, but it can have dramatic real-world implications, as demonstrated by the failure last week of one-time Kickstarter darling Emberlight.
The company had raised $300,000 back in 2014 to fund development of its smart light socket designed to work with ordinary bulbs. But on November 16, Emberlight notified customers it was going out of business due to competition from larger competitors and imitators selling similar devices for a quarter of the price.
Sad, but no big deal, right? Smart-home buyers will just have to get their smart sockets from someone else.
IoT failure: A bigger deal than it looks
Not so fast, the situation is actually a lot worse than that. It turns out Emberlight’s technology architecture required a call to the company’s cloud service for commands to turn the lights on or off. No more Emberlight means no more cloud service, so starting in three to four months when Emberlight shuts down its service, those lights are staying off.
(I have to say, this seems like a terrible way to architect the process. I mean, even when the company was still in business, if your internet connection went down, how were you supposed to turn on the light to figure out how to reboot your router? And Emberlight is hardly the first company to go this route. Just last year, smarthome hub maker Revolv turned off its cloud service when it was acquired by Google’s Nest.)
Well, now it’s happened again. Those Emberlight devices you purchased, they’re now useless hunks of junk. Sure, Emberlight was a small outfit targeting consumers with easily replaceable $50-$60 products that most likely don’t have life-or-death use cases. (After all, that’s why the company went out of business, remember?)
But there’s a much bigger message buried — not very deeply — in this story. Simply put, when buying into the IoT, you’re not buying a device — you’re buying into an ecosystem of devices and data and services and analytics and software. If any of one those elements becomes unavailable, the whole edifice comes tumbling down. Obviously, IoT devices are useless without the internet. But you also need the data, the analytics, the services and everything else.
Industrial IoT implications
If you’re a homeowner spending $60 on a smart lightswitch, that may be a risk you can live with. If you’re an enterprise spending $60 million on an industrial IoT implementation designed to make sure your equipment is always available and running efficiently, you had better take the time up front to make sure your vendors are in it for the long haul — and that you have an exit strategy if things do go bad.