The Internet of Things: Hardware with a Side of Software

Two things stood out to me as major themes at CES this year.

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The Nest thermostat connects to the Internet and can be programmed remotely.

Despite some people loathing CES, I actually happened to enjoy the show this year. I go to CES mostly to meet with our clients, gather data and market intelligence, and search for trends. CES always includes hidden gems; you simply have to know where to look.

Two things stood out to me as major themes at CES this year.

The Internet of Things on Display

We have talked about the concept of the Internet of Things for several years now. The Internet of Things is the idea that the vast majority of our electronics will be connected to the Internet and/or other nearby devices.

A refrigerator, for example, may have a touch screen on the door and be connected to the Internet, allowing you to remotely access information — things like inventory, temperature, whether or not you have what you need to make a certain recipe. Another example is the Nest thermostat, which is a connected thermostat that allows you to remotely manage your thermostat from your smartphone, tablet or PC. The high-level view of the Internet of Things is a world where nearly every electronic device we own will be connected to something.

In years past, this idea was just an idea — something we said was coming. This year, however, was the first year when I could actually say the Internet of Things was on display. I saw examples of nearly every type of electronics device — from coffee makers, ovens, fridges, cars, clocks, stereos, exercise equipment, and my personal favorite: an LED lightbulb with a wireless speaker built in. All of these devices were connected to the Internet and allowed you to interact with them, store data, access data and more. This was the first year I could see the Internet of Things becoming reality, and it is very exciting for us industry observers.

I’m half-joking but I can’t wait for the year when we see a connected toilet and companion app.

Hardware with Software Accessories

The reality of the Internet of Things coming to fruition brings with it perhaps one of the most interesting developments: the role of software. What become increasingly evident with all the connected devices I saw and played with at CES was that nearly all of them were made significantly more usable and valuable through the use of companion apps for smartphones or tablets.

Some I have spoken with position devices such as connected watches or even the Nest thermostat as accessories to your smartphone. The logic is that because your smartphone is the terminal that all these devices leverage to really make them smart, then the phone must have the more important role. This is true to some degree, because there is no point of having all these connected devices if the experiences are limited to the hardware itself. However, I would still position the hardware as the stand-alone device adding value, while the app on your smartphone is actually the accessory.

At CES, this hardware-software model was on full display in the area of smart health and personal sensors. I wrote a column on this subject last year, and I believe the smart health industry is about to launch into the stratosphere if this year’s CES was any indication. On the show floor, the pavilion for the smart/connected health area was the biggest I have ever seen it: Several dozen vendors were there showing off the latest in smart health. Every single smart health and body sensor product I got a demo of or gathered info on had a companion app that ran on a smartphone, making the hardware more than just hardware.

This is the world we are headed toward. Because of the unrivaled momentum and rapid worldwide adoption of devices like smartphones and tablets, we have smart devices with us at all times. They perfectly function as the platform to drive the interaction with the hardware around us.

All hardware will be made smarter through not just the use of connected chipsets and next-generation parts, but rather through the applications that add to their value.

Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the Big Picture opinion column that appears here every week.