Keep Your IoT Products Connected with This One Tip

Successful connected products, or IoT products, rely on one key point: a “connected product” must be… connected. But what happens when connectivity is lost due to something beyond your control?

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time on a farm. One day, my brother and I found a couple of tin cans and some fencing wire in the shed. With a bit of 7-year-old ingenuity and some healthy imagination we were soon talking to each other across the shed with our tin can “telephones”.

Our imagination didn’t stop there. We could run the wire out of the shed and up to the house so my grandmother wouldn’t have to yell like a woman possessed from the back porch when dinner was ready, she could calmly call us for dinner on her tin can telephone. Wow! We didn’t know it then, but we now call that focusing on a complete experience or an outcome for the customer 😉

Unfortunately, we didn’t take into account that my grandfather often used wire to fix anything. In no time, the wire could be cut with communications to dinner instantly lost! At least my brother and I could still keep chatting with our direct connection intact.

Fast forward a few decades and here I am still connecting things together. What’s interesting is that the principles of connecting things are pretty much the same; it taught me to consider fringe use cases.

Many of our customers create products that require real-time interaction with other products or with people. For the bulk of IoT applications, real-time typically means that a product will react to a remote command on a timescale of milliseconds to seconds. When you turn on your air conditioner with your smartphone app, you expect cool air to flow within a few seconds. For consumer IoT products, instant gratification is a default feature and for commercial IoT products such as medical devices, low latency, real time interaction is sometimes the difference between life and death.

What happened behind the scenes? The app on your phone sent a message to the air conditioner, right?  But how did the message get from the phone to the air conditioner? It can take two paths:  the message can go over a local network directly to your air conditioner unit (like me talking to my brother in the shed), or it can be sent out of your home via the internet to the air conditioner company’s cloud service and then back to the air conditioner unit via the internet (like my grandmother calling me for dinner).

Due to the speed at which signals travel across the internet, cloud services can provide real time or near real-time interaction, regardless of both signals’ locations. You may never know if a cloud connection is being used; the entire system just works like a well-oiled machine.

However, consider the following ‘fringe’ issues:

  • What happens when a backhoe digs up the street and cuts your connection to the internet (like my grandfather cutting the wire running up the paddock)?
  • What happens when your ISP or cloud service provider is down for a few minutes or hours and still falls under the 99.9% SLA?
  • What happens when your network connectivity encounters high latency and you or your service providers are troubleshooting?

What happens is you are left to yell at the no-good, useless piece of technology you’re holding in your hand that fails to control the air conditioner like you were promised. Now your cloud connected air conditioner unit isn’t keeping you so cool, is it? (Let’s not forget the 2016 Nest glitch that was all over the news). Or worse, you are on the phone with a high profile enterprise customer explaining why their critical devices will respond rrreeeealllllyyyy slow until your service provider has figured out what went wrong.

Think these fringe issues are rare? If this is your business or your customer’s experience, they are not rare enough. A 2015 research report by Cisco cites a scary statistic that 43% experience internet outages at least once per month and 17% at least once per week! And a NetworkWorld blog says it all in the title: “Which Cloud Providers Had the Best Uptime Last Year?” showing how one of the most popular cloud providers had over 50 hours in downtime in 2014 which related back to 233 total outages.

Here’s the tip to remember: you need your IoT product to be able to connect either using the internet and cloud or using a direct local connection if you want to ensure a positive and seamless customer experience. In fact, designing for an outcome that removes even a little bit of uncertainty for my customers makes ME sleep better. Having a direct local connection to your IoT Device doesn’t sound sexy, but trust me when I say I feel warm and fuzzy when a field service rep or a developer discovers the beauty of connecting directly to the device. It’s like a kid discovering the taste of sugar!

If you run a business that is considering adding connectivity to your products, one of the major factors to consider when choosing an IoT platform is whether the provider can seamlessly offer your products direct local connections as well as cloud connections.

By: Jason Crawford

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