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Directly connected to the Internet of Things

Mark Gibbs | April 26, 2013
Last week I discussed connecting things to the Internet of Things indirectly. This week, what's required for things to be directly connected?

This product got a very low Gearhead rating (1 out of 5) for a number of reasons, including its mediocre physical design, its lack of built-in Wi-Fi (the thermostat connects to your wired network via a proprietary 900MHz wireless dongle that you plug into your router), and the poor design of the iOS-only control app and the online Web application (both of these mix up operational control with configuration and the result is a clunky interface).

In fact, a temperature schedule set up on the iOS app can't be changed or even seen in the Web app and the feature to add a schedule in the Web app (their Web site claims that it "Allows you to build unlimited schedules from anywhere, anytime") still doesn't work despite me reporting the problem to Hunter Fan's support last November when I reviewed it.

All of that aside, the real deal-breaker for the Universal Internet Thermostat is the lack of local connectivity and control. I've had my Internet service go down and, despite my Wi-Fi working just fine, there's no way from within my network to control the thermostat when I can't access the Hunter Fan server.

There were also two occasions when the Hunter Fan server wasn't visible online even though my connection was working fine; once due to an unspecified problem Hunter Fan had and once, I believe, due to some problem in the network between my connection and Hunter Fan.

This lack of local connectivity also means that any kind of integration with home automation systems just isn't possible. Moreover, Hunter Fan is naively excluding all third-party development, which is key if you want to become any kind of commercial force in the Internet of Things.

This architecture -- device to Internet server to app to Internet server to device -- raises the question: When is Internet service actually required at all? In the case of the Hunter Fan Universal Internet Thermostat it's not like the service is keeping track of any useful data for me or implementing some kind of control logic. In fact, the online service is really only providing a gateway for remote control, which is not that big a deal and hardly worth the $10 per year that Hunter wants after the first year.

Sure, if Internet connectivity is 99.99% available, operating at a decent speed, and if control during some kind of disaster or other major local problem isn't going to make the thing useless or, worse, uncontrollable, then a server-mediated architecture is great. But those goals aren't guaranteed, and when you combine the lack of any of them with the requirement to have a server mediate all communications and with the requirement to pay for service when the service doesn't significantly add value, then I'd suggest that products like that are doomed.

For products designed for the Internet of Things to really succeed they need to be capable of local control and interrogation, to have remote access, to be reliable, and to be useful and cost-effective. Is that too much to ask?


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