Things that think The Internet of Things (IoT) sounds like a good idea. It ought to be fun; after all, it’s fun thinking up all those wacky ideas for connected products like connected driving shoes and the connected toothbrush. So why shouldn’t it be fun to make them too?
Last week the fun IoT came a little closer with the announcement by global telecoms group Telefonica that it was releasing a consumer-oriented DIY kit for IoT projects called Thinking Things. It has to be said that Thinking Things is a great concept, and it seems to have been done well too. It’s a set of Lego-like modules containing components like sensors and switches. These can be fitted together, and will connect to each other automatically.
There is a web-based (and mobile) interface that enables users to program their creations without having to know specialist programming languages, and Telefonica also sells data plans suited to the product. The first release is the ‘Environment Pack’, which includes a set of modules to temperature, humidity and light, and to program automated tasks. Others to follow are planned to include a Tracking Pack, with a GPS receiver module, and a Presence Pack, with heat and motion detectors and some remote controlled actuators
Thinking Things is based on Arduino, the open source hobbyist-oriented electronics hardware system much loved by the growing Maker movement of tech-literate people who want to build their own stuff. But it’s much, much more consumer-friendly than the raw Arduino kit. I would like to make a connected cat flap, and I’m not afraid to tinker a bit; but I recoil in horror at this set of instructions. I could imagine fiddling about with Thinking Things to make one, though
Thinking Things has been a long time in the making. I was briefed on it in the spring of 2013, and saw a demo version that included a prototype version of the plastic modules as well the programming interface. Machina Research, the analyst company where I work, had a more extensive briefing this summer; but it’s only now that the products finally see the light of day.
This does rather illustrate one of the difficulties that telcos face in this area. It moves really fast, but the telcos’ product development processes – even now – belong to another era, in which everything had to be thoroughly tested and tied down before it could be launched. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that telcos haven’t really embraced the internet software culture of “permanent Beta”.
For my money, Telefonica gets it better than most of them – it’s much more ready than most telcos to test something out and then kill it if turns out to be a dud. It did exactly that, after less than six months, with its consumer-oriented assisted living product “Help at Hand”, and with its WhatsApp- like IP messaging product TuMe. You are more likely to encounter Telefonica at beardy-weardy IoT meetings than any other telco, at least in my experience
To be scrupulously fair, Telefonica is not the only telco to have dipped a toe in the waters of the Maker movement. Deutsche Telekom also sells an Arduino development kit, and a connectivity package to go with it. It’s just the sort of thing to warm the heart of an IoT beardy-weirdy.
Telefonica’s offering is more consumer-friendly, though, and sits within a spectrum of products from ones aimed at the really nerdy to ready-to-use consumer wearables. Last month it launched a plug and play module that turns old bangers like mine into connected cars
Perhaps I’ll get to that cat flap after all