This year's Mobile World Congress is drawing to a close, and there are a few obvious themes that have emerged over the past few days. Smartphone makers are going nuts for camera improvements, and the big companies are doing their best to hype up the future of 5G and the all the wonderful things it can do for the internet of things (IoT).
Here's the problem, though. While I eagerly hope that 5G will let me ditch the internet cable running into my house, I could not give a single shit about the internet of things. That's boring. Really, really boring.
It seems a bit strange that I, a tech journalist, would have such an opinion. But, despite my fondness for gadgets and improving technology, I'm still a fairly low-tech kind of person. If I have the time (which I usually don't), I prefer to write my work out on paper before transferring it to my laptop. Likewise, I don't feel the need to purchase any smart home tech because I'm more than willing to just get up and sort things out by myself. I don't need smart bulbs when the light switch is about 10 feet away, now do I need a smart meter keep automatically judge what temperature my flat should be.
The closest thing I actually have to smart home tech is a set of remote control plug sockets that I bought in Aldi for £8 or £9. And I only use those so I can turn the heater on in the morning without getting out of bed. No internet connection, no Bluetooth, just a simple power-controlling plug-in adaptor that's controlled by the same kind of remote control you'd use with a fancy sound system or a games console.
So when tech execs got on stage talking about the future of the IoT, I found myself zoning out. Frankly, the only places I can really see the IoT taking off are in scientific research and anywhere else that relies on data collection. So they can have some internet enabled equipment that can automatically measure something and beam that information to a central server, rather than having to send an actual human being round to document the information manually. Some of these systems are already in place, as I found out last year when researching for a possible job offer, and from the sound of things they can be invaluable tools.
But from a consumer perspective? Nah. I'm not buying it. Because why the hell do we need internet-enabled devices that function perfectly well without an active connection to the digital world?
"Convenience!" some of you might say. "You get to control your home from a central hub!" Other may cry. "we're really really lazy!" say a few people at the back. "I have mobility issues and have difficulty doing those things without some help!" says a single solitary voice.
I think it is important to mention that that final reason is one you can't really argue with. Obviously if you have mobility issues, or some other sort of disability that makes it harder to, for example, get up and turn the lights on and off whenever you feel like it, smart home and IoT tech has the potential to make your life infinitely more comfortable. For those of us who are independent and able-bodied, the benefits are minimal at best.
Giz UK Editor James O'Malley has spoken at length about how much he loves his Amazon Echo, with particular emphasis on how he can walk into the house and tell Alexa to turn on the lights without fumbling around for a light switch. My Echo, on the other hand, is currently sitting unplugged on my bedside table. Since I moved it has been used once, for a piece of news, but even before that it was little more than a glorified alarm clock - and not a very good one at that.
But there is a serious problem letting technology control your house. Light switches are pretty durable and provided it was wired up by a competent electrician you shouldn't have any serious problems for a long time. Pumping everything through some sort of hub, on the other hand, requires the hub to actually work the way it's supposed to, or else you're completely fucked. Last September a lot of BT customers had issues connecting Amazon Echos to their HomeHubs. Only a few days ago Google suffered sign-in issues across the US and Europe, forcing Google Home owners to have to go through the set-up process again. Both of those cases are minor inconveniences, but the fact of the matter is that the only way a light switch can temporarily go offline is if there's a power cut.
Similarly if your internet goes down for whatever reason, IoT tech is, once again, rendered completely useless. For a smart bulb, that might not be an issue since you can just turn on the light switch, or add a spare bulb. But what if a bug affects your thermostat, and leave you with no central heating? That's literally what happened with Nest, literally leaving people in the cold with no real help other than suggesting they try turning it off and on again. You also need to take into account the strain all those extra devices can have on your router and local network. Your basic freebie from your ISP probably won't be up to scratch if you're serious about making your home nice and smart.
I'm fully aware that most of that reasoning is very petty, but let's not forget that the tech industry has been doing a pretty poor job of implementing IoT tech already. For starters nobody really knows what they're supposed to be doing with it, leading to some really quite bizarre and unnecessary devices thrust into the open market. Things like smart collars for pets, fridges that inexplicably have computers in the door, smart water bottles, a smart hairbrush, wearables for foetuses, a 'smart projector' that's only slightly different than the overhead projectors you'll find in schools, and even smartwatches . Hell even smart kettles - a ridiculous concept given how kettles need you to physically fill them with water from the tap.
Looking back at the rise of IoT gadgets, and you can't be faulted for thinking that this whole smart-everything craze is just a gimmick companies are using to try and sell worthless tat to gormless shopping-obsessed consumers. Frankly that's exactly what it looks like, and even Nest - the same Nest that helped pioneer early smart home tech - has criticised the waves of garbage hitting the market.
Plus, smart devices have a built in lifespan. We don't like to admit it, but eventually the manufacturer will stop supporting certain models in favour of newer, shinier ones. Or because they had to shut down, or ended up being sold to avoid financial ruin. Worst case scenario, your expensive gadgets just straight up stop working. Sometimes you might get a bit of notice, as was the case with the Nextbit Robin and Pebble, but in other times your devices will just get bricked: which happened with some Nest devices less than a year ago.
Best case scenario, manufacturers will just stop offering software updates for your machinery - which itself comes with some terrifying side-effects. IoT devices are, as the name suggests, connected to the internet, and this means that any shoddy security can be found and exploited. I'll go into that in a big more detail in a second, but the fact is, what if those exploits are discovered after your manufacturer has decided it won't be supporting your device? You're basically fucked, and it puts you and your stuff at risk.
Whereas, my lovely dumb, non-connected washing machine might not have fancy things like smartphone control, but it's not going to get bricked by manufacturers who want people to upgrade. Nor will it be hacked by ne'er do wells who intend to overheat my clothes and shrink them into oblivion. Also, if it breaks I just need to call out a washing machine repair guy, not send it off to a repair centre somewhere in the middle of nowhere where it can be poked and prodded by a team of technicians.
The final, and probably most important issue with the internet of things is security. Or rather, the distinct lack of it. It feels like hardly a week goes by without some big revelation about the dire state of security in smart gadgets, Whether it's the fact that cameras never turn off, people hacking in to spy on unsuspecting people (or scream at their sleeping babies), or just the distinct lack of serious security protocols. There are plenty of ways terrible people can get into your house via smart gadgets, provided they're not hijacking them and using them as part of a botnet tasked with DDoSing most of the internet. The current state of IoT security is like a black hat hacker's wet dream.
Despite knowing of the dangers since the very beginning, nothing has really been done about it. Those smart gadgets you install in your home are still very hackable.
Maybe tech companies are finally wising up to the fact that the current state of the Internet of Things is messier than Soho on a Saturday night. Maybe they're all going to get their act together to produce meaningful products that aren't riddled with easily-exploitable security flaws. But, when considering what we've already seen I do not have high hopes. They say the definition of insanity if doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results. It feels like that's what's been happening, and the tech industry just hasn't figured that the ongoing strategy just isn't working.
So, executives in suits that probably make more in one month than I do in a year, you can stop singing praises about the future of the internet of things. It's all just hot air at this point, and it's about time you actually made good on your promises and made something people can actually benefit from buying.