The First Wave of IoT—Blood in the Water: An Interview with Kevin Rohling

[interview]
Summary:

In this interview, Mobile Dev + Test keynote speaker Kevin Rohling digs deeply into the Internet of Things. He explains how companies need to improve their UX, the security risks with becoming connected, and what devices he's excited to see in the future.

Josiah Renaudin: Today, I'm joined by the VP of product at Emberlight, Kevin Rohling, who will be delivering a keynote titled, "The First Wave of IoT: Blood in the Water" at our upcoming IOT Dev + Test Conference. Kevin, thank you very much for joining us.

Kevin Rohling: No problem. Excited to be here. Thanks for doing the interview, Josiah.

Josiah Renaudin: I appreciate it. First, can you tell me just a bit about your experience in the industry?

Kevin Rohling: Yeah. My background is mostly in the mobile space, so I come from a mobile developer and mobile product background. I've worked at a handful of startups in the mobile space, and I guess the way I ended up getting into IoT is I ended up meeting up with a buddy of mine. It's the way I think a lot of startups end up getting started—I had a buddy of mine who was ... He had a hardware background. I had a mobile background. We just ended up meeting over coffee and kind of talking about different hardware ideas.

I was really interested in the hardware space, because there was all this buzz around hardware startups being the next big thing, and I just generally think hardware is kind of cool and interesting from just a geeky perspective, so I kind of wanted to get involved in it. We ended up hanging out, talking enough, and we decided join forces on Emberlight.

Josiah Renaudin: Yeah, and when you talk about buzz around hardware, there's not much more buzz ... The Internet of Things is some of the biggest buzz we've had in a while. For the longest time, it seemed like this far-off idea, like in the future everything will be connected, but more and more, it's becoming a modern reality. When was really the first moment where you realized that the Internet of Things was no longer five, ten years down the road and more something that we are dealing with right now?

Kevin Rohling: I think there's going to be—like everything else—there's going to be different phases to IoT. I think there are some really amazing things that we probably won't see until five to ten years down the road, unfortunately, that we wish that we could see now, but I think the other side is we're seeing some things that we didn't expect this early.

It's kind of mixed expectations there, but I think kind of when I decided it was something exciting and worth pursuing is, you know I live in San Francisco, and so we're just surrounded by startups. You can't help but hear about the hardware scene here, so coming from a software background, I ended up meeting a lot of people who were hardware engineers. I kind of sought them out because I thought it was an interesting space, and it was probably about three years ago, I ended up just kind of meeting up with some folks that were former Intel and doing some really interesting things in the hardware space, developing a wearable platform.

I just talked to those guys for a while and kind of got involved and started teaching myself how to build my own PCBs and building little hardware hobby projects. Then you started hearing about the funding—you hear about a lot of companies that are getting well-funded to go and build these hardware devices, and obviously Nest was probably one of the first notable exits in the IoT space. I think a lot of times, though, there are a couple of things that are necessary in order to kind of build a startup ecosystem around things. Like one of those is obviously the capital.

You've got a lot more incubators now that are just focused on hardware. You've got venture capital firms that are just focused on hardware as well. It's still a minority, like a drastic minority compared to what's available for software, but there are a lot of resources now that weren't available even three or four years ago. I think for me, it was kind of a combination of seeing the capital availability, seeing at least one notable exit, and just kind of hearing the buzz from folks here.

Josiah Renaudin: Absolutely. You mentioned previously something about expectations, and I was reading through your abstract for your keynote and you had mentioned that some people feel that the promised innovations from the Internet of Things have yet to be realized. What do you think the average person expects IoT to look like once it actually reaches its potential? What do you think is the big picture?

Kevin Rohling: Yeah. It's going to be really hard to say, "We finally have made it." But I think that there's some really significant challenges that still need to get overcome. At the end of the day, what do consumers want? They want things that just freaking work, and they want it to work as easily as the things that they have in their house do right now. When you buy a new toaster, you don't have to go and set up WiFi; there's no complex configuration that you have to do. When you get a new refrigerator, it's heavy—you just wheel it in and plug it in.

There's not, like, complex configuration that goes into the door knob that you have on your front door, and you don't have to wonder when you walk up to the door whether or not it's going to unlock or whether or not you're going to have to pull out your phone and fiddle with it for fifteen minutes. At the end of the day, people just want things to work, and I think what's standing in the way right now of making that happen. There's user experience challenges that kind of need to be figured out.

We need to figure out, What is the UX for IoT? Is it all going to be based on mobile? Are these things going to be kind of self-configuring? Obviously, the more work you push onto the user, the better. There's also a lot of technical challenges that still need to be figured out. Like power management is a really big one. Competing wireless standards, should we use Zigby in the house? Should we use WiFi? Should we use BLE? Should we use thread? There's still a lot of competing wireless standard.

It's very much the Wild West out there. There's very little standardization and so you know, one of the big promises of IoT is that like, all of your devices are going to work together and talk together and function as like a seamless whole and for that to work, then obviously these things need to talk to each other and that's really hard when the standards, there's still so much fragmentation.

Josiah Renaudin: Yeah. You touched on a lot of interesting things there, but what I do want to hone in on is user experience. Once again, I was looking through what you had been writing and you mentioned that the crowd-funded Internet of Things devices, they have poor UX, maybe even inconsistent user experience so why do you think that is, and what can developers do right now to improve that user experience for their customers?

Kevin Rohling: Yeah, good question. I don't want to make a blanket statement that all the Kickstarter projects out there have a bad user experience. Some of them have a really good user experience. Just to kind of give you an example, I've got a Boost skateboard; I don't know if you've seen one of those?

Josiah Renaudin: I've heard of this, yes.

Kevin Rohling: That thing is amazing. But the user experience for that, the remote control, I was super skeptical that was going to be a good way to interact with the board, but it actually is surprisingly a very good way of doing it. It's really hard to make a broad, sweeping statement about user experience. At the end of the day, you want users to have to put in as little work as possible. Getting a little bit technical with it, some of the mistakes that I've seen a lot of IoT devices make are around set up and initialization.

That's the hardest part of getting your device working is getting it set up, getting it configured. Whether it's connecting it to WiFi or whatever that happens to be, that experience is your first touch point with your user. It's your first opportunity to say, "Hey, I've put a lot of thought into this and I'm working really hard to make this easy for you." I'll just kind of focus in on Emberlight and what we did there and kind of compare that to some other things in the space.

Just to give you an example, there's a lot of WiFi-based bulbs out there that you screw in and you have to on your mobile device go in and change your WiFi network. You have to connect to the WiFi network that's hosted by the bulb, you then have to put in some credentials to log into that WiFi network. You then have to go back to the mobile application and go through a series of steps that frankly work maybe 50 to 60 percent of the time. What we did at Emberlight to try and minimize the amount of work is, one of the things that we kind of said up front that we wanted to shoot for from the UX standpoint was we don't want the user to have to leave the app, like not even once to get it set up.

We also wanted to make it possible for you to set up however many bulbs you wanted too all at one time and so in order to do that, we actually implemented WiFi provisioning using Bluetooth low energy so within the mobile application we're able to hit all the Emberlights in your house all at one time and provision them securely over Bluetooth low energy and since pretty much all the modern smartphones today have BLE radios in them, then you don't even have to leave the app. We could manage the entire provision process for n number of bulbs in the app and we could make it a pretty slick three step process for the user. We've put a lot of work into that. That wasn't easy but at the end of the day, we think it's a pretty differentiating set up process. It's certainly a lot more user friendly than most of the other products out there.

Josiah Renaudin: Yeah, and like you said, it's hard to make a broad, sweeping statement about user experience, how to manage it and what works and what doesn't, but let's go back to making broad, sweeping statements, because I want to talk about security challenges for a second. A lot of people get excited that, oh my God, my fridge suddenly is connected to the internet or maybe like you said, my doorknob will someday be connected to the internet in some way and that's exciting and interesting. But with that comes the fact that now there's so much more inside your house that is connected to the internet, that is connected to more and more of your personal data, so what are some of the security challenges you've encountered when it comes to the Internet of Things?

Kevin Rohling: Yeah. I'll tell you where I think the biggest risk is when it comes to IoT and then I've got a story to go along with this. I think it's really about all these devices that you've got in your house. At Emberlight, it's not so much that we're worried about people being able to hack your lights and control your lights, that's annoying, but it's not the worst thing in the world. What is risky is if someone were able to hack these devices, they could put an agent on these devices and then they're on your WiFi network and they could start just snooping and looking at traffic on your WiFi network. That's bad and there's all sorts of bad things that can happen there. We actually heard a story about some folks that bought some Nest thermostats and actually flashed them with malicious firmware and then resold them on Amazon for super cheap.

Josiah Renaudin: Fun.

Kevin Rohling: There was all these people that were like getting this amazing deal on a Nest, and they go in and they install it at home, and this thing is just sniffing their WiFi network and it's sending data to the attackers.

Josiah Renaudin: Wow.

Kevin Rohling: It's a little bit brilliant, definitely sneaky, and not a good thing, but those are the things that I worry about the most. Not so much somebody hacking our light bulbs and being able to control your lights; it's really more about the ability to do malicious things on the network with the devices.

Josiah Renaudin: You mentioned the Nest; we mentioned lights that can be controlled in that way. Could we talk just a bit about the next wave of Internet of Things devices? Because it still feels like we're a little bit early in it. Can you talk about the next wave, including speech interfaces and new wireless standards?

Kevin Rohling: Yeah, absolutely. I think a couple of the products that I would kind of fit into this next wave would be definitely the Amazon Echo. I guess how I'm differentiating this in my head, as they kind of feel like more mature products.

Josiah Renaudin: Yeah.

Kevin Rohling: They've got more of an ecosystem built around them, they're easier to use. The Amazon Echo I think definitely falls into that category. It's incredibly easy to use and it's a genuinely useful device. The boosted board, that's one of my favorites. That's another great device. I think what's kind of differentiating about this next wave if you will is that we're getting to the point now where the technology, and I think just our own learnings around user experience are allowing us to build things that are genuinely useful. They're not, I'm not sure what the right word is, I think the first wave was more difficult for people to use and it was more gimmicky, I think.

Josiah Renaudin: Yes.

Kevin Rohling: Not to call out any specific products, but I've got a handful of friends who have connected doors and they say it's interesting and kind of cool, but they also say it only works maybe half the time when they're walking up to the door. I think kind of this next wave is we're seeing things that actually genuinely work. It's taken us a lot of work to get to this point and they're genuinely easy to interface with. I am really excited about speech in the home, and I think that's going to be the interface that we end up using going forward.

Not just the Echo, but the new Apple TV has it as well. We're starting to see speech become a lot more common as a user interface and the reason, I think, that's going to win in the home is if you think about how user friendly your house is, your light switch, it's an amazing user experience. If you ask anybody how to use a light switch or if they know how to use a light switch, there's nobody that can't figure out how to use a light switch. Most of your home is kind of built, it's a genuinely easy to use interface for pretty much everything in your house.

Your oven is pretty easy, you know to open your fridge. You don't expect things in your house to be difficult to use and that's really difficult to beat. One of the challenges working on the Emberlight product was we built a smartphone interface for the bulbs but at the end of the day, we know that that's not the end game. That's not like the stopping point, it's a stop gap if you will, while the rest of the user experience for the home is kind of being innovated on. The way you beat that amazing user interface for all the other stuff you have in the house is going to be speech because it's so intuitive when it works and when it works really well, it's so intuitive and so easy to use that I think it's one of the very few ways that you can beat the interface that you already have in your house.

Josiah Renaudin: The Echo, is that the IoT device that you're most excited for, whether it be for its innovation or practical use or is there something else that really stands out?

Kevin Rohling: I think there are a few other kind of speech focused devices that are coming out. Apple TV being another one, the latest version of the Apple TV. I haven't played with it, but it also looks great. There are definitely things missing from the Echo that I would like to see. Interestingly enough, television integration I think is one of them because once you figure out how great and easy to use the speech interface is, one of the very first things because it's usually I think the living room, one of the first things that you instantly want to do with it is you want to use it to control your television. Unfortunately, it doesn't, so I am optimistic for the new version of Apple TV. I haven't used it, I don't know anybody that has yet but I'm optimistic that's going to be another great product.

Josiah Renaudin: Absolutely, and I think we will continue to see new things, new fun things popping up whether it be through crowd funding or through big companies like Apple and through Amazon. I feel like your answer might change by the month, and I would not blame you.

Kevin Rohling: Yeah, for sure. I think one thing I will say about that, this is kind of I think a differentiating point between the large companies and the small companies here is at the end of the day, somebody's got to own the front end for the interface. Somebody's got to own the microphone, somebody's got to own the actual speech processing part of the system, and I don't think that's the sort of thing that makes sense for small companies to do. It's really hard and at the end of the day, nobody wants to buy a platform.

People want to buy products that are interesting and useful. Actually, at the end of the day, people want products that are useful and building out a platform that is kind of a Trojan Horse as a useful product is really, really, really hard. It's only the really big players that I think are going to be genuinely successful at it. I think startups are much better off kind of focusing on fully vertically integrated devices that do one thing in the home really well and then interface with these other platforms for the speech recognition and those other services.

Josiah Renaudin: All right, I don't want to give away too much of your keynote, but I do have one last quick question for you. Just to give people an idea, for the people who have signed up for Mobile Dev + Test and plan on going there, what's kind of the overall message you want to leave with your audience? Of course without giving everything away, what's your goal here?

Kevin Rohling: Yeah. I think my goal here is to provide some insight into the reality of developing IoT products. I think you can hear a lot of buzz on media outlets and a lot of really interesting things happening. You hear about companies that end up going under before they actually ship a product. I really want to give people kind of an insider’s view into that experience. I want to explain how hard it actually is, and I want to explain why it's hard and also I want to explain how those things are changing.

There are some things that are going to get easier, there are some things that are going to get harder. I really want to take… I think my insight developing an IoT product over the last year and a half here and help people understand like what is this like, what is really hard about it, why are so many companies failing here. I think for anyone who either has a hardware background and is interested in maybe building a startup or someone with a software background who just is really excited about IoT I think will find this really interesting.

Josiah Renaudin: All right, great. Thank you very much, Kevin, I'm looking forward to the keynote and hopefully I can talk to you in the future about different IoT conversations.

Kevin Rohling: All right. I'm looking forward to it.

Kevin RohlingVP of product at Emberlight, Kevin Rohling is an entrepreneur with a strong engineering and product background. Kevin held previous positions as an early engineer at Card.io (acquired by PayPal), CTO at Breezy, and CEO of CISimple, which he sold in 2014. His passion is the intersection of challenging engineering problems and intuitive user experiences. Follow Kevin on Twitter @kevinrohling.

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