Key To Internet Of Things: Consumer Empowerment

Author

Jason Bloomberg, Contributor

December 4, 2014

The Internet of Things (IoT) may sound like the next great area of innovation to drive consumer convenience and capability – until the details sink in. Do we really want big companies dictating how we control our appliances, while collecting data about our behavior to sell us more stuff? And do we truly crave refrigerators that order milk or cars that make their own service appointments? Sometimes it seems the hype around the IoT exceeds consumers’ desire for the technology – not to mention the headaches that come along for the ride.

Not all IoT vendors, however, are flogging products offering questionable value propositions that run contrary to consumer preferences. “When we launch a product, we observe deeply to understand how people are using it, what are they using it for, and how they tweak it to suit their own needs,” explains Ohad Zeira, Director of Product Management for WeMo at Belkin International. “Conversations with consumers are changing how marketing and product development works.”

Belkin International, Inc., is a Playa Vista, California-based manufacturer of consumer electronics. They specialize in networking and other connectivity devices, primarily for consumers and small businesses. While they’re perhaps best known for their networking gear, their popular WeMo® home automation line has given them an onramp to the IoT.

Home automation in some form has been around for years, giving consumers the ability to control when lights and appliances turn on and off. WeMo, however, presents a new opportunity, “the most approachable entry point into the connected home,” as Zeira explains the strategy.

WeMo’s essential realization was that customers aren’t demanding sophisticated connected home capabilities. “People don’t feel disconnected from their home and then go and get a connected home,” Zeira says. Instead, WeMo is starting small. “We want to be there with the solution for a specific problem that really annoys a user, and build from there.”

In other words, WeMo has resisted the urge to push its customers to build connected homes with their technology. Instead, they let customers set the pace. “We don’t want to be premature,” Zeira points out. “Observe first,” and then build out capabilities “based on consumer usage and sentiment.”

The Light Bulb Moment

The aha moment for Zeira came about when he realized that less was more, as customers had to drive how they used Belkin’s connected home products. The starting point on this journey, surprisingly, the original WeMo Switch. “Lighting, in particular stand-alone lamps plugged into a switch, are a big use case,” Zeira explains.

To enable customers to take advantage of the Internet, WeMo turned to digital startup IFTTT. IFTTT stands for “if this, then that” – simple, consumer-friendly ways to connect devices and services to each other using what IFTTT calls channels. A channel allows an event or other action trigger some result, for example, sending a text can turn on a light.

Using these technologies, the starting point for customers is to give them a sandbox – an application they can use to experiment with WeMo controls and the IoT. “While WeMo is a fully capable platform, we felt that we could crowd source innovation with IFTTT, which makes for a great sandbox,” Zeira explains. From there, “it has a long tail of uses and applications.”

A wonderful example of this customer-driven innovation is a recipe for connecting the WeMo lighting control to various online services. “Customers are using it to create connections with Weather.com, for example, to turn lights off and on at sunrise and sunset at their actual date and location.”

Not every customer has the predilection or the modest technical skills to experiment, however. “The first generation are the tinkerers,” Zeira says. The tinkerers, then, create recipes for new applications of the technology. “The second generation downloads the recipes,” according to Zeira.

In this way WeMo has wisely empowered customers to build their own community around its products. “Consumers are also posting what they have built, sharing it with us,” Zeira explains. Furthermore, WeMo avoids privacy concerns by excluding personally identifiable information (PII) from its community. “We take an aggregated, non-PII approach,” Zeira says.

By empowering consumers in this way, Belkin avoids the creepiness factor so prevalent with today’s digital technologies. “We listen and work with consumers,” Zeira points out. “We ask people for their location only if and when they desire to turn on the sunrise/sunset feature.”

IFTTT: The Great Equalizer

It’s no mistake that WeMo works with IFTTT, as the tiny, pre-revenue startup is quickly becoming the glue of the consumer-oriented IoT. “The way we see the Internet of Things playing out, there’s going to be a need for an operating system that’s detached from any specific device,” Linden Tibbets, CEO and cofounder of IFTTT says. “What we’re doing now is the foundation for that.”

Essentially, IFTTT offers Integration-as-a-Service, a traditionally enterprise-centric capability for connecting complex pieces of software – only in their case, IFTTT brings cloud-based integration to the masses. “IFTTT is the creative cherry on top of a robust platform,” Zeira explains. “It has simple Boolean logic but it’s still programming.”

Predictably, WeMo plans to build on how they empower customers with the tinkerer-friendly WeMo/IFTTT combination. “If we do well – if we delight our customers – we can add additional experiences with added value.”

In fact, “Belkin is moving toward whole-home sensing with contextual intelligence,” Zeira says. “We need a contextually aware system” that provides customers with “the benefits from being connected and adding intelligence.”

In fact, Zeira foresees a day were they can take people out of the loop entirely – where the connected home has the smarts to anticipate human desires and preferences. The challenge? “How to fulfill the promise of anticipation.”

Consumers, however, will never want technology that provides such anticipatory intelligence in their home unless they feel empowered to choose and configure the connected home capabilities they desire. The secret to the consumer IoT, therefore, is facilitating this empowerment.

By starting with simple tools for tinkerers, leading to a customer-driven community of recipes, finally resulting in more sophisticated solutions, brands like WeMo and IFTTT are on track to enable broad consumer adoption of the IoT.

In contrast, other vendors who fall for the IoT hype and push advanced technologies on consumers who aren’t ready for them will only meet resistance. Remember, digital transformation success hinges on putting the customer at the center – even across the Internet of Things.

Ohad Zeira will be speaking on “Investing in the Internet of Everything” at the Internet of Things Summit in San Francisco on December 10 – 11.

Intellyx advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, none of the organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers. Image credit: Quinn Dombrowski.

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