How Boring Can Be Exciting

It’s been snowing here, much more than usual. Despite being confined to quarters already (you may have heard there’s this bug going round), mentally being forced to stay indoors turned my mind to the never-ending list of things to fix indoors.

My father used to use a hammer to do this. Today the hammer has been replaced with a laptop, and an almighty amount of patience. For every one thing in need of some oil or replacement, there seems to be half a dozen more requiring a thorough debugging, or more realistically, throwing out and going back to what we had before.

I’m not complaining, as this is all self-inflicted. You see, I have a bad case of IoT fever. Those of you also suffering from this will recognize the symptoms. It starts with one cool widget you saw on YouTube or Reddit. A Wi-Fi connected lock is the most common gateway drug. For me, it was attempting to solve the issue of opening and closing a faraway gate without having to go outside.

However it starts, once you get used to amazing visitors by just saying “Siri, activate zwave relay switch number 3” three or four times to close the gate you’re standing next to, well, now you want everything to be so easy. Suddenly you are mortgaging your home to buy the latest widget from every cool company selling you on your vision of the future.

You have become a True Believer, as I well and truly have.

Having gone through the home computer craze of too many years ago, the IoT version feels very similar. Things our grandchildren will take for granted in the future bring great excitement today. I still remember telling myself the day I unboxed my original Alexa that I will remember it as the first computer I found myself talking to on a regular basis.

And as any — I mean all — early adopters will tell you, being first requires tremendous patience, compassion and understanding. The path to tech-vana is strewn with the dumbest, random and infuriating bugs, dead ends and just plain weird problems. Like the time I figured out after a few months of debugging that I could take my cable modem offline just by having one of my boys walk in front of the doorbell.

True to form, I have just spent most of the weekend dealing with a whole variety of random IoT bugs. These must be resolved as they kind of interfere with living in my house.

For example, one of my HomePods isn’t finishing configuration. The big HomePods don’t play with the small ones. And all of them tell HomeKit to take a hike when you try and make sure they’ve all stopped playing at night. The list of HomeKit bugs is remarkable and could easily drive a dedicated home IoT-er into a very bad place emotionally. To stave that off, I switched to my Level locks.

These things are really very cool. They go inside your door, so you can use your key, and nobody knows there’s a Wi-Fi connection inside it. They worked great in a prior house, but in our current home they keep getting stuck when opening or closing. It feels like the acceptable fitting tolerances are very fine, I’m guessing that between repainting the already thick doors we’re right at the edge of the maximum width. The result: after a successful, repetitive test, a few hours later they begin to stick again. And of course, the only one that’s still working is no longer speaking with HomeKit, I suspect in solidarity with the others who have declared it smart home platform non grata.

Even Siri has been playing games this snowy weekend: saying ‘turn off the lights’ in one room will routinely turn off *all the lights in the house* but when you say, ‘turn on the lights,’ will only turn on lights in that very same room. Well, three of them, leaving the fourth unlit. Puzzling. And so, I add it to the list.

For those of you who think I’m going on too long into my bug list, I apologize. And I assure you, this is a *very* abbreviated accounting of what I’m dealing with here.

But beyond the puzzlements and exasperation, my experience as a True Believer reinforces this fact: new ideas require many, many much less glamorous and exciting inventions to make them work. And these very boring inventors have a much bigger impact than we might think, even if their names are lost to history.

For instance, Eli Whitney’s ‘revolutionary’ cotton gin was the foundation of industrializing the textile industry, ultimately contributing to the start of the US civil war, but it took over 30 separate patented improvements before it could be used at scale. Something as simple as reducing how often threads snap by having a de-tensioner wheel makes a huge difference at scale. Suddenly you can run hundreds or thousands of threads at once. Boom. You’re now in the global textile business.

Great fortunes can and are made by solving these boring problems. I recently spoke with an entrepreneur who has spent eight years working on a difficult real world measurement problem that has been holding back his business. He’s tried all kinds of things, even mailing special laser measuring doohickeys to his customers, and nothing really solved his issues until he figured out how to make the product tolerant of the variances. Instead of measuring accurately, he’s found a way to deal with inaccuracy, and now he’s having trouble scaling. Eight years of R&D to solve for a few millimeters!

Problems like these are hard to fix, are way too common, and solutions to any of them have real value.

IoT is no different. Big leaps forward in usefulness, reliability and adoption rates can be unlocked by seemingly trivial improvements, such as eliminating a single step of a setup process, avoiding a common fault or even improving customer service in some specific way (we can all dream).

What’s sets IoT apart though, is, like the clothes the cotton gin enabled, it is utterly ubiquitous. Just taking a look at my own network, for every device I personally interact with, I have twenty-five times as many IoT related devices: every window has a sensor, every door and vent can be opened or closed, every room has a temperature, and so on. Even my gate (the one that got me started on this journey) has an array of sensors: is it closed? is it opened? is something blocking the way? what is the battery level? etc.

This universality not only increases the number of problems, which can be frustrating, but it also dramatically increases the size of the market for the solutions to these challenges. As my father’s generation sought the opportunity represented by the phrase “Go west, young man,” my kids may well find IoT a similarly opportunistic area to develop ideas and expertise in.

Even if you’re not stuck in the snow, we’re all staying close to home in the months ahead. So, if you’re thinking about what to do or build next, why not pick up a few IoT gizmos and start trying to use them? You’ll very quickly see how tantalizing the automated future is, and also just how completely, utterly and unbelievably broken it is right now. I keep believing the effort will be worth it, and my family have grown used to lights just going out for no reason whenever I work on my enormous issue list.

And while I have your attention, I’d love to hear from anyone who knows how to make these darned HomePods work.