Ever since the beginning of the Internet, people have been connecting ordinary household objects to it. In the early days of the Web, webcams were extremely popular. The first webcam was the Trojan Room coffee pot, which was pointed at a coffee pot in the computer lab at the University of Cambridge and went live on the Internet in 1993. Students could check whether the coffee pot was empty by viewing the latest picture of it on a website.
Subsequent webcams would let anyone view office scenes, street scenes, fish tanks, and toasters all over the world. In some cases, viewers of the webcam could control the camera or the object the webcam was monitoring via the web. These were early examples of what the futurists now call the Internet of Things (or IoT).
One of the most persistent predictions of how the Internet will change in the future is that more and more of the every day things we interact with will be networked. The justifications for this connectedness are often pretty thin — when pressed, marketers, journalists and futurists have a hard time coming up with actual reasons we should connect our toasters, refrigerators, and tea kettles to the web. Nevertheless, these things get made.
We most often discover that an Internet-connected teakettle or thermostat is more expensive, more difficult to use, and much more likely to break than the thing it replaces. In the case of the teakettle, it turned out to also have a major security vulnerability: namely, it would give up your WI-FI password to hackers very easily.
Is it worth it to have a teakettle that you can start and monitor with your phone, when you still have to get up from your desk to fill the kettle and to actually make the tea? Is it worth the expense and the worry that someone might hack it and thereby control everything else in your house while you’re out of town (security system, thermostat, lights, refrigerator, etc.)?
We have no doubt that the Internet of Things might provide benefits, although we’re hard-pressed to think of them. For now, they provide interesting things to think about and interesting blunders to talk about, as the two worlds collide. For the foreseeable future, the Internet of Things seems to be a vision in search of a justification.