Rory Sutherland

The internet of stupid things

Sometimes, too much competition can be as much of a problem as too little

The internet  of stupid things
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Back in the 1980s a colleague of mine was paranoid about being burgled. Before he went away on a two-week holiday, he bought the most expensive telephone answering-machine he could find and installed it in plain view on his hall table. Each morning he phoned it from Spain and hung up once he heard the outgoing message. He’d then enjoy the rest of the day content in the knowledge that his flat was safe; if no one had stolen his absurdly flashy answering machine, he reasoned, they wouldn’t have stolen anything else.

Today he could buy a Canary. These cost about £139 (the website’s and let you view your own hallway in glorious HD from anywhere in the world. Your Canary will alert you to unexpected movements in your house, and monitor air quality and temperature. If you have a second home with a broadband connection, or if your main home is often empty, I can recommend this. Mine was easy to install and for the past year has worked without a glitch.

I suspect most people could benefit from some kind of home monitoring device, if only for reassurance. I am also a fan of those systems (Hive, Nest, etc) which let you control your central heating from anywhere.

My fear is, however, that there are so many stupid inventions now being devised for the ‘internet of things’ that the few good ideas get lost in the noise. It is now so easy and inexpensive to add wireless connectivity to anything — a fridge, a toaster, a waste bin — that it has become a lazy form of innovation. (It also poses scary security risks — in 2013 Dick Cheney underwent surgery to remove the wireless connectivity from his pacemaker, for fear that it could be hacked in an assassination attempt.)

The number of connected devices is now getting silly and is in fact a barrier to adoption. In many technological categories, too much competition can be just as bad as too little.

In markets which become too crowded too quickly, and where no brand reputations have time to form, a kind of Gresham’s Law can take hold; the dodgy players drive out the good and trust in the whole category disappears (something similar happened, I think, with the potentially excellent idea of holiday timeshares). You may remember the craze last Christmas for a kind of electrically powered sideways skateboard called the, um, Hover Board or Hoverboard or Swagway or Soarboard or Airboard or…. These boards were quite an interesting idea. But you didn’t buy one, did you? Not least because Chinese manufacturers made so many variants of the damn things, you didn’t know which one to buy.

A similarly good idea which I suspect may suffer this fate is called… well again there are lots of names, but try searching online for the Lay Bag. It is two airtight tubes in a kind of labial formation which you wave in the air to inflate, creating an amazingly comfortable outdoor sofa or hammock; it folds down to a tiny bag weighing only a couple of pounds, making it one of the first items of outdoor equipment not designed for masochists. Again, there are so many different makes available that it is impossible to decide which one to buy, and pointless for any one manufacturer to invest in making this good idea still better. This is a pity, as with a few added improvements it could be fabulous. One simple thing the designer really does need to add is a number of small pockets to allow you to weigh down your Lay Bag with stones on windy days. Mine was last seen 500 yards out to sea and heading for the Belgian coast.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.