My mother likes to tell me that I went to my first tech trade show in a stroller, and that she and my father were inspired to get a VCR that day.
The VCR, for nearly two decades, was the prototypical gadget of tech trade shows. Not only did it make previously inaccessible tech accessible, but it justified the existence of such conventions. Do tech trade shows even matter anymore? attendees grouse now, since so many hardware makers hold their own launch events throughout the year. No, but also yes: every so often, that VCR-like product is there, the one that introduces a new, disruptive format that everybody makes a big deal about.
But if the VCR was revealed last week at CES, it would have to be a much smarter VCR. It would have to be connected, with a compatible app. It would be a part of some company’s broader Internet of Things strategy. An upgraded model would respond to voice commands. Eventually, it would be hacked.
Everything is connected now, and there’s no going back.
That’s the sense I got, anyway, roaming the floor at CES — not just this year but for the past few years. There are connected light switches, refrigerators, bathroom mirrors, mattress pads, meat thermometers, pet food bowls, toothbrushes, hairbrushes, skin scanners, sports goggles, turntables, diapers, shoes, so many put-this-thing-on-your-body-and-send-us-the-data wearables. There are, of course, smart speakers. TVs are no longer just displays, and they haven’t been for some time. They’re internet-connected portals to streaming media and advertising platforms. Cars are now computers.
Some of these connected products absolutely make sense. A home security camera is nothing if it doesn’t send you a video feed of what you need to see. Connected medical devices can also be useful, like when they’re helping to track flu outbreaks. As Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi wrote to me via email, “A connected meds dispenser that alerts your doctor when you forget to take your life-saving pill, or can see if you overdose because it knows how many pills you took, is a good example of connected tech.”
Some products don’t really benefit from a Bluetooth chip and an app, though. Milanesi also observed that a smart pet scoop that tells other family members whether the pet has been fed is only “solving” our own laziness or communication issues.
Another analyst who attended this year’s CES, IDC’s Jitesh Ubrani, told me he didn’t come across any products where he “wished that they had been connected sooner, or ones that would have changed my life in a meaningful way.” He says he believes that the consumer IoT industry as a whole is heading in the right direction by improving quality of life, “but we’re going to have to weed through a bunch of not-so-great products in order to get there.”
There is an upside to dumb products getting smarter: our gadgets can be optimized, regularly, through software and firmware updates. The gadgets know us, and can better serve us, is the promise. Research firm Gartner has predicted that by 2022, personal devices will know more about an individual’s emotional state than their own friends and family, thanks to artificial intelligence.
But there is an obvious downside to our connected devices, too: their inherent vulnerability. The problem with a gadget that knows you is, well, that it knows you. Also, do people even want this many connected things? Or are we all going to end up purchasing connected gadgets because they’re connected by default?
There’s some indication that yes, people really do want these products. One in six US adults now owns a voice-activated smart speaker. But consumers are worried at the same time. Forty percent of participants in a Deloitte survey last fall said they were concerned about smart home gadgets tracking their usage. The backdrop of Spectre and Meltdown at CES, which sucked up a lot of the air at the show, was just another reminder that these things we use are not benign products.
And it’s not just privacy and security that people need to think about. There’s also lock-in. You can’t just buy a connected gadget, you have to choose an ecosystem to live in. Does it work with HomeKit? Will it work with Alexa? Will some tech company get into a spat with another tech company and pull its services from that hardware thing you just bought?
Here’s the thing: it’s unlikely that the connected toothpaste will go back in the tube at this point. Consumer products will be more connected, not less. Some day not long from now, the average person’s stroll down the aisle at Target or Best Buy will be just like our experiences at futuristic trade shows: everything is connected, and not all of it makes sense.
Pining for the good ol’ days of dumb products will be a waste of energy. Instead we’ll need to demand thoughtful design, reasonably open ecosystems, and airtight strategies around security. That may be the only way to navigate a totally connected world and stay sane.
As for that JVC VCR my parents splurged on: it never received a single software update, and it never talked back when we talked to it. It did hold a useful place in our living room for nearly 15 years, though. I probably won’t be able to say that about any of the tech products I own today.