Mmmmm. Creamy.

Mayo, Spam, and the Coming ‘Internet of Things’ Arms Race


A Horrifying Vision

I’m back in the office today after two days at an Internet of Things Expo in Manhattan. We’re clearly at a weird state where everyone in the world knows that something big is about to happen, but no one has any idea where or how. Lots of people were expressing frustration that there are no clear standards yet. COAP? MQTT? Turns out that there are already startups doing their best to sell services that will abstract away pesky details like underlying wire protocols. I even brought home a brochure from a company that’s claiming that they’ll be able to implement your entire IoT product vision without any software development effort at all! I think I’ve posted here before about how many times in my career as a developer I’ve seen this wave of ‘Programming without Programmers’ snake oil come back to life.
One panelist commented that it felt a lot like the early days of the internet all over again.
During another presentation, I saw how right he was.
I went to a presentation from a company that’s doing work to enable anything that’s taggable by any method (RFID, QR codes, Plain-old barcodes, BLE, whatever) as a trackable Internet of Things endpoint — they see the real money here is in letting brands invent clever new ways to let you engage with them, because… I guess there’s an untapped need for people to be able to engage with more and more brands?
The example that was given is similar to one that I’ve seen in varying forms over the years. Let’s assume that you’ve got one of the new smart internet-enabled refrigerators that everyone keeps saying that we’ll all have before we know it, and you get home from the grocery store and among the groceries you unpack into the fridge is a new jar of Hellman’s (known as “Best Foods” West of the Rockies) Real Mayonnaise. I’m with them so far — I like mayonnaise, and I even start out sympathetic to this example since I have life-long brand affinity and loyalty to Hellman’s. When it didn’t come in on top of a double-blind mayonnaise taste test that Serious Eats did a few years ago, I was as incredulous as most of the participants were. Yes, I also realize how ridiculous that sounds.
It didn’t take long for his PowerPoint presentation to go off the rails from there, though.
In cute cartoon format, the refrigerator did these things:

  1. Noticed the new jar
  2. Downloaded and displayed a top mayonnaise recipe (Steak and Green beans, calling for “‘a dollop’ of Hellman’s (r)”)
  3. In a cartoon speech bubble, the fridge said “I’ve ordered you the steak and green beans for the recipe!”

Not shown was the immediate aftermath that I assumed — the homeowner jabbing frantically at the refrigerator’s touch screen and swearing because he can’t find the button to cancel the order.
I’m trying to imagine the meeting where this was the best, most compelling idea for this company’s amazing vision of the future that they were able to muster up. I’m even more puzzled that no one in the room could see that even if you can make a case for this with a single product, it scales badly to the real world. I just went downstairs to my fridge (working from home is awesome) and counted 62 packaged, labeled products in there. What happens when each of those products has the marketing budget of Diageo and Mondelēz behind it as they all start fighting it out in a bizarre automated battle for mindshare right there in my kitchen, reporting back to the home office how often that mayo jar gets used, or what other brands are in there along side it? I’m picturing opening my front door and finding that the Amazon delivery drones have dropped a random selection of ingredients ordered as a result of imaginary auctions mediated by my fridge, leaving me with the worst Chopped basket in history.

Am I going to need to hack the source code of my fridge to enable an Incognito mode, so I can enjoy my mayo anonymously?
That initial panelist was right I think — this is just like the early days of the internet, and the people who’ll save us from the insanity will be the folks who develop reliable Spam filters, except that this time, we’ll mean Spam very literally.

note to self: next time, don’t write on an empty stomach.

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