When I bought my A5 two years ago, one of its flashy options was an in-car network service. The sales fellow said I could activate a cellular modem built into the dash and connect all of my devices to it as if it were a home broadband router. Just connect everyone’s phone or tablet or laptop to my car over Wi-Fi, and blam! Super-cheap connectivity. All this, he schmoozed, for £8 a month.
I had AT&T for my mobile service at the time, and they’d been throttling my bandwidth something fierce – slowing down access speeds for users with “unlimited” bandwidth plans. I needed a reliable way to stay connected while running around Dallas, and I figured that T-Mobile’s in-car service had to be better than relying on my dodgy, wheezing phone.
To be fair, it was better service than I was getting on my mobile… so long as my car sat perfectly still in front of my house (exactly where I didn’t need supplementary connectivity). Everywhere else, my car’s puny 3G service couldn’t maintain a connection. I couldn’t get any connectivity outside of the city limits. After months of struggling to make the solution work, I switched phone carriers and gave up.
In a similar vein, the satnav in my car supposedly worked on a similar model: instead of reading routes and addresses off an optical disk in the glovebox, my car gets all of its maps and directions from Google Maps over its cellular data connection. This was supposed to guarantee that I’d always have the latest information about real-time traffic conditions, detours, and so on. In practice, my satnav never worked any better than the in-car network feature. Half the time, my satnav refuses to admit that the destination I’d entered exists on Earth. Other times, it stubbornly insists that the road that I’m currently on doesn’t exist. On one trip, my car earnestly insisted that I was off-roading through a field – in the middle of the suburbs. Eventually, I gave up and went back to human navigators with paper maps.
If you’re getting the impression that I hate my car, that’s absolutely wrong. I adore my A5. It’s gorgeous and it drives like a dream; it’s just as dumb as a bag of hammers. I rely on it for transportation, so I don’t bother trying to make the flash bits work anymore.
This is why I’m sceptical about the internet of things; I’m afraid that we’re going to be stuck with the internet of bloody stupid things for foreseeable future, while designers’ grand visions smash headlong into unsympathetic pedestrian reality. We’re throwing embedded applications and connectivity into anything that can hold the parts, whether there’s a reasonable use-case for it or not. Internet-connected refrigerator? Why not? Networked living room lights? Why not? Globally-addressable smart bidet? Why not? What could go wrong?
Except… we know what could go wrong. The smarter that devices get, the more fragile and temperamental they become. Code fails. Logic gets confused. Elements conflict. Every new complicating factor introduced into a complex system increases the probability that a glitch will cascade into a system-wide snarl.
I just don’t have the time or energy for this. Fun as it is to play with all the advanced features, I need my tools to reliably deliver the core services they were originally designed for. I need my oven to heat, my kettle to boil, my lights to illuminate, and my toilet to flush. Anything that threatens those core capabilities is unacceptable.