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A slow overnight sensation: Finding the 'easy button' for the Internet of Things

We talk to Intel's Doug Davis about what it will take to deliver an Internet of Things that will get the public excited. Hint: beer plays a supporting role.

Doug Davis, general manager of Intel's Internet of Things Group. James Martin/CNET

Doug Davis is a senior vice president at Intel and general manager of its Internet of Things Group. Right now, the vast majority of work on the connected web of smart devices is about business. The IoT acronym even rings of the enterprise business jargon that puts most people to sleep.

So I asked Davis the most pressing question: Will the general public ever really care about the Internet of Things? Is this a love affair that will be akin to the average person's relationship with their home network routers?

"Should people care?" said Davis. "Yes. Because I think there are so many opportunities. We talk a lot about the smart home. We're starting to see things like lighting and security and even your garage door opener," says Davis. "But we're going to see the integration more and more of those kinds of systems. If we can create more open interfaces, that will create much richer experiences [for consumers]."

But what about bringing that smart home to life? Even the easiest options right now require a lot of tinkering to get them working just right. Davis admits there's still a lot of work to be done.

"I've had a couple of versions of home automation and control. It's wonderful when it works," says Davis. "But it is still challenging to get it to work easily. I'm really looking forward to that point where we've created enough of a scaleable capability in the home so they can interoperate with each other and as just an average consumer I can set things up to work the way that I would love to have them work."

"We need the 'easy button' for the things that we want to use as a consumer. To be able to imagine what I would like for my home or car or my environment to do, and then to have it be easy to configure and make it work."

From here to there

Davis admits there won't be a 'big bang' moment for the consumer side of the Internet of Things. Right now, a lot of work is happening at the industrial and business level, but he said that the little underlying things will come together, meaning smarter power, smarter transport grids, smarter cities for consumers. But it still has to come back to the personal for most people to really care.

While pointing to a lot of the standalone systems that are already a reality -- from Belkin's WeMo to Apple's HomeKit -- Davis sees a first phase where a lot of silos are going to come to our homes. One for lighting, one to manage a suite of kitchen appliances, another monitoring climate control -- separate hubs that don't interoperate well. We'll need to get past this before we eventually get to a place where standards take root and these silos learn to play nicely with others.

"I buy one gateway and the lights that I buy from this one vendor will all work. But I can't go buy lights from a different vendor. All the devices that are part of that ecosystem will work together, but it'll be difficult to cross over ecosystems," he said.

"I think there will be a desire then to create more of a universal gateway in the home. That gateway creates the ability to talk to different physical protocols and across these different silos. Then it becomes a single app on my phone or tablet or whatever where I can control my lighting, my climate control, my security, and I can control it all through one portal. And I think that's what we're going to eventually evolve to. Press the garage door opener, have it disable my security system and turn on the lights, all because I pushed one button."

Belkin's WeMo motion detector can trigger your smart home gadgets when it sees you enter the room. Ry Crist/CNET

Davis has one real fear for the next few years of the Internet of Things.

"I hope we don't have some big issue from a security perspective that causes people to become apprehensive about these kinds of things. [Security is] just essential. It can't be an afterthought."

The trouble is, all those silos might be the place where that security scare occurs. But Davis hopes that the fundamentally connected nature of this field means security can keep up with changes -- at least, when security is being done right.

"If we, as a technology industry, do that right, then that gateway by definition is connecting back to a data centre in the cloud. By virtue of that it ought to be able to be upgraded over time," says Davis. "We think that for these kinds of devices the ability to check in and be updated is really important. Especially important from a security perspective."

"It can't become a static thing. My home wireless router ought to be able to be upgraded, but I don't know how to do that. Well, why can't it do it for me? It should have enough intelligence to check in periodically, look for any updates and just be able to do that."

The Internet of Beer

In the USA, and in many other parts of the world, beer is big business. People who love beer really love beer, and with over 200 million kegs in the USA there's a lot of beer sloshing around. It's also turned out to be a prime candidate for an Internet of Things makeover that both businesses and consumers can get behind.

SteadyServ's iKeg app interface. SteadyServ

SteadyServ is a company making a smart ring for kegs that weighs the keg and tells you how many drinks are still inside. For businesses, it helps reduce waste -- traditionally, bar staff just shake a keg to decide whether it is finished. For drinkers, it helps ensure a bar manages its stock better so it doesn't run out of beer. Even better, SteadyServ will soon be app-enabled so you'll be able to find out which local bars are carrying your favourite brews -- particularly exciting when you're chasing down that one microbrew.

"That is a great example from a consumer standpoint and you can see where that is valuable," says Davis. "But for the industry overall that will save a tremendous amount of waste because just naturally a lot of beer gets thrown away."

Suddenly something that was just about inventory management becomes very consumer friendly indeed. And it didn't require rebuilding entire infrastructures. Just a smart scale customised to understand the needs of a beer keg.

This is the essence of the Internet of Things. Once those 'Things' become something we care about, it starts to matter a lot more. IoT is about smart sensors and the analytics that turn the information gathered by the sensors into something meaningful. From beer kegs to grid power management to your heart rate recorded by your smart watch, gathering data and turning it into something useful is the real magic of IoT.