Monday, January 20, 2014

Seventy flavors of Fitbit... really, is that all we can do?

It was a frantic frenzy... still nothing was really new. Ok, LG showed they can bend screens, big and small alike. Parrot gave their flying play-drone big wheels so it can roll up a wall and across the ceiling and they showed another one that can jump. GoPro has a lot of accessories. Ultra HD is the same as 4K and is the new reason why we need even bigger screens in our living rooms. Watches will take your pulse. Eye glasses with computer screens will make you look like a dorky, squinting, cross eyed cyborg and probably give you a headache too. Robots will vacuum your living room and clean your windows. Wrist bands know that you're moving. And auto manufacturers have realized that their cars are internet of things.

Yes, I am talking about the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas a week ago. It was very exhausting, but not very interesting. And while it generated a barrage of articles and news reports about wearables and the internet of things, my sense from walking the show floor for a short day in between meetings was that we were mostly seeing seventy flavors of Fitbit. Nothing really new, just lots of copies with small incremental tweaks.

Oh, and in case you're one of the three people who has not yet heard that Google agreed to pay $3.2billion for a thermostat company, - albeit a very cool thermostat - home automation is the promise that keeps on promising.

Cynical (and jaded) yawns aside, I do believe there are really interesting things happening in the world of consumer electronics. Here is my summary of some reasons why they're not happening faster:

Behavior is sticky
it is very hard to motivate us to change our behavior. We learn to do things a certain way and unless there is really compelling value in the form of saving money, making money, working less, removing physical pain, or getting laid, most of us won't make much of an effort to change. So I won't remember to charge a watch that counts my heart beats, but runs out of power after 12 hours. Unless I've got a chronic heart condition or I'm training for the marathon, I will give it up after a few days.

Infrastructure is big
Many of the really big, interesting new plays rely on new infrastructure to really take off. Take Tesla. They're not just building electric cars - difficult enough - they are attempting to build a network of fast chargers and battery swap stations. The infrastructure needed to change from gas to electric power is enormously expensive. Anything that requires we move to a different infrastructure will take a lot of time and even more money to take off.  

Power is bulky and heavy
Batteries are heavy and computer chips and radios that connect them to the internet draw a lot of power. IMHO this is the single biggest reason why we are not seeing more innovation in the wearables space. It's all about power. Why can't my wrist watch just talk directly to the internet? Power. Why won't my GPS navigation device last for a week-end? Power. Why doesn't my quadcopter (drone) fly for more than ten minutes? Power. It's ALL about power. Battery technology is far from keeping up with the power demands from the connected devices we may want to have. And the lower the power drawn by the computer chips you need to run your gizmo, the slower and dumber it will be. We have a very simple inverse correlation between access to power and our ability to really innovate with connected, wearable devices.

(Good) ideas are hard to make real
 It is in the space between good ideas and good execution that brilliance and disruption happens. Nest Labs - the aforementioned thermostat company - took something very boring, your thermostat (and more recently your fire alarm too), and turned it into a fun, sexy and useful experience. They built a simple product experience that changes how you heat your house - saving energy and money along the way. Now that's impressive. The focus and discipline it takes to do this is what stops most people from attaining it. Fadell led the original iPod effort at Apple. He has been schooled well in the art of simplicity and focus. Some of the more interesting things I saw at CES last week - robots, flying drones - are built on ideas that could be really powerful. Yet what they all had in common was that they have not achieved true simplicity. Hence, they're not accessible and usable for the majority of us.

Simple is difficult
Nothing is more difficult than simplicity. It take unique talent, time, patience and persistence to solve old problems with new solutions. Nest realized that most people would be replacing their thermostats themselves when they received the product on their doorstep. So they paid enormous attention to all the details of installation. In the box were color coded stickers that you put on the wires coming out of the wall based on where they were connected to your old thermostat. Then you unhooked the wires, turned around, picked up the Nest and voila, the stickers matched the colors on back of the Nest, making it super simple to hook it up. This kind of attention to detail at every level is what made Nest amazing.

It won't be wrist-worn accelerometers, nor watches that take our pulse that will cause the Internet of things to become a gazillion dollar market. I think it will be a few simple, yet big, audacious ideas that are executed with immense attention to detail and with a relentless focus on simplicity. And as we overcome the challenges of power and build out new forms of infrastructure we will surely look back yet again in five years and say: remember the days before we had....