If you’ve been paying any kind of attention to the news over the past few months, you will almost certainly have heard about Nest (fig. 1), a new kind of thermostat from former Apple veteran Tony Fadell and his team. Much of the buzz about Nest has been focused on its sexy industrial design, but its real beauty runs deeper. Like any thermostat, Nest’s job is to maintain temperature at a desired setpoint. What distinguishes Nest is how that setpoint is determined. Unlike earlier thermostats, which had to be manually configured, Nest automatically configures itself.
While the launch of a “smart thermostat” may seem like a trivial event, the truth is that Nest, and devices like it, signal a major paradigm shift from isolated traditional devices to networks of “smart devices,” a trend that has big implications for technology-based companies across the board. Just imagine: if Nest can revolutionize something as straightforward as the thermostat, how might smart devices transform factories, or transportation, or hospitals? As we move into a world of increasingly smart devices, business leaders—regardless of industry—need to develop their understanding of the smart device paradigm, and begin to imagine how they might take advantage of the huge opportunities presented by this fundamental change in technology. In the first section of this article, we clarify exactly what a smart device is by examining the key characteristics that define smart devices. In the second section, we provide a set of recommendations for how to begin tapping the opportunities presented by the smart device paradigm.
What is a smart device?
Smart devices are distinguished from the traditional devices that preceded them by a set of unique characteristics. (While no smart device embodies all of these characteristics, all smart devices will have at least a few.) Smart devices are:
Smart devices have technology that enables them to achieve a new level of “awareness.” RFID tags enable smart devices to identify themselves—in other words, to be “self-aware.” They also have a variety of sensors, which enables them to be “context-aware.” For example, Nest has a proximity sensor that knows when a person is approaching, so it can light up its screen. Motion sensors let Nest know if no one’s home, so it can turn down the heat and an ambient light sensor prevents the illuminated display from blinding you at night.
Unlike traditional devices, smart devices are equipped with processors and software, which allows them to think and to learn. For example, Nest has an internal schedule that records users’ behaviors, and algorithms that enable it to automatically adjust the temperature to maximize both comfort and savings based on what it has learned.
Smart devices are connected to networks. For example, Nest’s network connection enables it to access temperature data from the Internet, which it uses as a factor in determining the optimal temperature. Additionally, users are able to control Nest remotely, via a website or a mobile app.
Smart devices are also connected to each other. An early example of this is Sonos (fig. 2), “the wireless HiFi music system,” which is, essentially, a network of connected speakers controlled via a mobile app. You can easily imagine that, at some point in the future, Nest will be part of a larger ecosystem of smart devices in the home all talking to each other.
Traditional devices assisted humans in doing a job. Increasingly, smart devices are doing the job themselves with minimal intervention from humans. For example, Nest no longer needs a human to tell it what temperature to set. As another example, it’s easy to imagine a future where smart devices in factories communicate with each other to automatically shut down or re-route a production line to contain a chemical spill if a machine goes down.
Some smart devices (like Nest) are embedded in the infrastructure of buildings; others, like smart phones and other personal smart devices, are “mobile.” Still others are “ambulatory,” as in the case of small robots. But what they all have in common is that they are physically distributed, placed “in situ” where they can best do the job they’ve been given.
Historically, technology has demanded a great deal of attention and energy from users. In contrast, networks of smart devices seek to be “calm.” Smart devices aim to recede into the background, communicating with each other to seamlessly support users, and only interjecting themselves into the user’s awareness when absolutely necessary. Nest is an early example of this. In the future, you can imagine a system of nearly invisible smart devices in the home, working together to regulate not only temperature, but things like security, energy use, air quality, lawn maintenance, etc., with very little human input.
Smart devices utilize new technologies which lend themselves to new form factors and, ultimately, radically new forms of interaction. Multi-touch, popularized by the iPhone, as well as gesture-based interactive systems like Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect, are early examples. The Fujitsu “Iris” tablet PC is another example—a transparent tablet PC that supports, among other things, instant translation of text and a “reality amplification” application that enables users to overlay an interior design on a real space. Look for things like ambient intelligence, augmented reality, haptics, sophisticated gestural interfaces, heads-up displays, and flexible, transparent and auto-opaque screens to break through to the mainstream soon.
Get ahead of the curve
As Albert Einstein said, “The future comes sooner than you think.” The era of smart devices is here, and if you aren’t already thinking about how to tap the attendant opportunities, you should be. As with any major paradigm shift, advantages accrue to those who make the smart moves early.
Identify potential opportunities
The first step is to identify and prioritize potential opportunities. Start by thinking about market opportunities and promising technologies. Also, be sure to consider some of the less obvious opportunities inherent in this new paradigm including data-driven offerings and device networks.
- Identify market opportunities. Start by taking a fresh look at your existing market. Who are your customers? What are their unmet needs? Do you produce traditional devices that could be enhanced with smart technology to better meet customer needs? Then think about potential new markets. Are there new markets you could enter with the right new smart device? What are your competitors up to? Who might you partner with?
- Identify promising technologies. The shift to smart devices is being driven by deep technological change, including Moore’s law and the increasing availability of both wired and wireless Internet bandwidth. In turn, smart devices themselves are driving the adoption of (and demand for) supplementary technologies, such as RFID tags, sensors, Gorilla glass, etc. What technologies do you produce that might be of value in the era of smart devices? What new technologies could you employ to transform your existing offerings?
- Think “data.” In the era of smart devices, it’s important to understand that hardware, software and data are inextricably linked. If you are a hardware manufacturer, what kind of data might you collect? Who might find that data valuable? Is there a way to monetize it? What kind of software might be needed for customers to make use of that data? If you are a software manufacturer, especially if you are focusing on desktop software, are there opportunities to improve your offering by introducing a mobile app or a software-driven device, or partnering with a hardware manufacturer?
- Think “networks.” While individual smart devices have significant benefits over traditional devices, the real power of this paradigm will come as smart devices are increasingly connected into networks. What devices in your portfolio could be enhanced through connection to other devices? What customer problems could be better solved with a network of devices?
Early in any paradigm shift, there is a learning curve to understand where things are going and how to profit. Once you have identified promising opportunities, begin experimenting with ways of shaping smart technology to fit market needs. In times like these, up-front certainty is impossible; experimentation is the only way to learn.
Develop key skill sets
New technologies and new interaction paradigms necessitate new skills. To compete, companies will need to hire folks with real experience developing and productizing smart devices, as well as retrain existing staff. If you’ve gotten this far in the article, it should be clear by now that engineers skilled in integrating new technologies will be key. What may not be as obvious is how important investing in great design talent will be. As devices become increasingly connected to each other, and as software and hardware become increasingly intertwined, working with designers who can create seamless, unobtrusive experiences and can design elegant interfaces that manage tremendous amounts of data, will be critical.
The era of smart devices presents significant opportunities for those who can see and take advantage of the possibilities. Nest has changed the game for thermostat manufacturers through the application of smart technology. Follow the tips in this article to “get smart” and inspire the same kind of transformation in your own industry!