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Nest Shutdown Demonstrates Importance of Apps to IoT

If you haven’t heard, as reported by Mashable, Nest announced it was dropping support for one of its products on May 15. More than just dropping support, the product apparently ceased to work entirely. Mashable further noted, "The product isn’t one of Nest’s branded lines – it’s not the thermostat, the smoke alarm or the Nest Cam. Instead it's the Revolv smart home hub.”

Now to be fair, it’s said there aren’t a whole lot of Revolv users and that’s likely one of the drivers for the decision to shut it down. After all, the product requires the company to maintain servers that consume resources (technical and operational) that are likely more costly to maintain than the revenues received.

I’m not in the business of determining whether that’s a good business call or not and as I’m not affected I don’t really have a strong opinion one way or another. What I do have a strong opinion on (and you knew I did, didn’t you?) is the need to point out the often unmentioned dependency the things that make up the “IoT” has on back-end applications.

Honestly, the name is sort of a misnomer when it comes to many of the gadgets lumped in with the IoT. Things like the Revolv don’t connect TO the Internet. They use the Internet and connect TO applications. Applications that are running in the cloud and in data centers around the globe. Those applications are responsible for metering and remote control, for monitoring and billing. They are not disposable and, in most cases, without them many “things” become little more than sensor-enabled bricks. Our eight-year old has small electronic kits that are able to do as much as some of the things heralded as “the future” and gleefully labeled as a “thing”. What those kits don’t have is a connection to the Internet or an app that enables them to do much more than simply turn the lights on and off, or display the time of day.

The value of IoT is not unlike the value of data which, on its own, has no intrinsic value whatsoever.

Breathe, people. Breathe. That’s not heresy, it’s just the way it is.

It doesn’t. A database full of numbers and strings is inherently useless to the people who make decisions, whether operational or business. It’s only when that data is collated and presented is it able to be analyzed by people can meaning be derived from it. That’s when data becomes information, and it is information that is power, not data. The role of the application in the IoT is a very serious and critical one, as Nest unintentionally illustrates. Without an app, a “thing” may be able to continue working based on its last known configuration, but it won’t be useful in the future because there’s no way to modify it, to monitor it, to tease out information that might be useful to its users.

This dependency, of things on apps, seems to be an as yet illusive reality to many who really don’t get the technology. The author of the aforementioned Mashable article was doing well – until these two sentences: 

Still, the total shutdown assumes that the Revolv could in no way exist or operate without connecting to a centralized server and that it would be impossible to use the hub in a local-only mode.

That’s possible, but it seems more likely that the Nest team just didn’t want to invest resources in allowing the small number of remaining users the ability to use the device locally, sans the connected service.

There is an inherent lack of understanding of the dependency between things and their apps, between the reality that things - in order to keep their cost, size, and power consumption to the bare minimum – simply cannot support both the data and control planes necessary sleek form factors. The IoT is the embodiment of the classical SDN architecture which requires physical separation of data and control planes, leaving management and analytics to the far more capable apps that reside elsewhere: the “Internet” in the Internet of Things. It’s distributed computing. Thin-client computing. Headless computing. Whatever you want to call it, that’s what it is – as long as it’s describing a relatively light-weight device whose compute and storage resources are focused primarily on collecting data and doing what it’s supposed to do while a fatter, more complex app resides elsewhere where data is collected and crunched, displayed and interacted with by both consumers and the business.  

The Internet of Things is the Business of Applications. I can’t reiterate that enough in these (still fairly) early days. Without the apps, many things are really of no more value to consumers or businesses than their “dumb” predecessors.

Which is unfortunately what Revolv users are finding out right now.

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