The Internet of Things: Your worst nightmare

Is life really going to be easier when you can't use your toothbrush because it's lost its Internet connection?

You've heard the hype: The Internet of Things (IoT) will transform the way we live and work, bring us untold benefits like cutting our utility bills and warning us when the milk has gone sour, and be the engine for the next great economic boom. McKinsey claims, for example, that the IoT could have an impact of $11.1 trillion per year by 2025 -- about 11% of the world economy, by McKinsey's estimate.

I'm not an economist, so I can't comment on McKinsey's estimates. But based on my recent experiences with Internet access built into a variety of "things" in my house, the IoT could become our worst personal IT nightmare.

My problems started with an all-too-common occurrence: My Wi-Fi router burned out and I had to replace it. This happens regularly enough that I keep another router as backup. I turned it on, then connected it to my cable modem and Sonos bridge for wireless music streaming. I was feeling smug -- I used the same SSID and password as the previous one, figuring that all the devices would automatically connect to it.

Ah, if life in the IoT age were only so simple.

My first problem was with my Samsung smart TV, which didn't prove to be particularly smart. I tried Netflix on it. No go. Amazon Prime. It didn't work. Hulu Plus. Nothing. The TV wasn't smart enough to connect to the new network, even though its settings were identical to the old one. After 45 minutes of getting lost in a maze of incomprehensible menus and settings, I finally stumbled onto a screen that let me log into the new network, using the exact same SSID and password that was already in the TV.

Next up, my Sonos bridge and six wireless Sonos speakers. None of them recognized the new network. After four tries of attempting to connect, the bridge worked. Then I started in on the first speaker. I followed Sonos' instructions more than 10 times. No connection. I moved onto the second. After 10 times it didn't work, either. After an hour of trying each speaker in the house, I gave up. Then I noticed that one of the speakers, seemingly on its own, made the connection. But no others did. After two days of trying, all the speakers eventually connected, although I'm not quite sure how and why.

My work still wasn't done. My Lexmark E120n networked laser printer wouldn't work. This was the most baffling of all, because it was designed to work on a network.

I restarted the printer, assuming that my router would assign it a new IP address. Nope. I figured that downloading a new driver or Lexmark software would fix the problem. But Lexmark's support page for it was down. I managed to find the driver elsewhere and installed it. That didn't solve the problem. I eventually found a Lexmark IP configuration utility that should have worked but didn't. The printer still had the IP address the old network had given it, and that address didn't work on the new network. I did a factory reset, but that didn't reset the IP address. I tried telnetting into the printer to run a setup utility built into the printer's firmware. But, of course, because the printer wasn't on the network, I couldn't telnet in.

Eventually I found the solution, which required using an undocumented maneuver: turning off the printer, opening its cover, holding the Cancel and Continue buttons down simultaneously, turning the printer back on while still holding down the buttons and eventually releasing them. Not exactly intuitive.

So days after installing the new network, all the things in my house that needed to be connected to the Internet finally worked.

Now imagine this same scenario in the age of the IoT. You replace an old router with a new one. Your refrigerator, oven, microwave, light bulbs, heating system, air conditioner, door locks, security system, and even your toothbrushes (yes, there are already network-connected toothbrushes) were all connected to your old network. Now you need to connect them to your new one. Their Internet connections will certainly be afterthoughts, with little attention paid to help people troubleshoot them. There will be no common operating system for them, no standard way to connect and disconnect. After all, if engineers can't even make it easy to connect a printer designed to work on a network, how easy do you think it will be to connect your stove?

You may think that a solution might be simply not to connect your devices to a network. But there's no guarantee that they'll work without a connection, or that you won't lose your warranty if you don't keep them connected. And I'm not even talking right now about all the problems you'll face connecting them in the first place.

Once upon a time, being your home's IT director meant knowing how to troubleshoot one or two PCs. Then you had to learn how to troubleshoot wireless networks. After that came smartphones and tablets. Soon it will be every device you own. How many hours do you think you'll be spending being your house's IT director in the IoT future? More than you want to spend. Certainly more than I do. Because I have seen the IoT future, and it doesn't work.

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