Why aren't there more 'smart' devices in our lives yet?

The name of the popular Scottish indie band, We Were Promised Jetpacks, evokes a bitter nostalgia felt by many who grew up watching science fiction movies and TV shows. If, as many pundits say, we are currently living in the future, then why isn’t more futuristic stuff permeating the lives of regular people? Where, for example, are all the smart houses? By smart houses, I mean houses full of smart devices, the kind we might have seen on an optimistic show like The Jetsons, that popular projection of early 1960s American optimism as the future of middle-class bliss.

In fact, The Jetsons is a common touchstone for today’s pundits talking about how close we are to a fully automated domestic existence. For example, Wired speculates about dishwashers that will schedule their own repairs, as well as cars that will talk to radiators, ensuring that the home will be heated by the time the owner arrives. But there’s nothing magical and far-reaching about that kind of functionality. Why isn’t it already widespread?

Writing in The Smithsonian magazine, Matt Novak comments on the irony of The Jetsons as a constant benchmark for what should be attainable, but somehow is not. Novak astutely notes that The Jetsons itself didn’t actually last long in its original airing because most viewers still had black and white TVs, which were incapable of rendering the show’s futuristic look. In other words, the banality of the (early 60s) present was actively preventing people from clearly perceiving their own favorite version of the future.

We technologists of the early 21st century might learn something from that irony. But the problem with our vision of the future is not the color of our televisions. It’s our perception of how we’re going to get from point A to point B.

Fantasies like The Jetsons usually begin in medias res: we see the futuristic house, already built, wired up, stocked with gadgets, and inhabited by productive people. We don’t see the part where the functions of the house, the gadgets, and the people get into sync as the result of complex relationships between business, technology, and culture. Perhaps what’s most telling of all in that regard is that we don’t get a sense of the infrastructure that is supporting all those wonderful systems.

It’s easy to imagine how a dishwasher might schedule its own repairs, so long as we assume that the dishwasher comes with that functionality built in. A Maytag dishwasher could call a Maytag technician, using a Maytag repair service API, and the repairs could be charged to the customer’s Maytag account. The dishwasher could seamlessly work with the router because of the Maytag-Cisco partnership. The technician could be a drone, which could be let into the house by the SimpliSafe home security system, because of the Maytag-Simplisafe partnership. And the scheduling of the repairs could be done in cooperation with Google Home 2026, which would run the daily household calendar, and that would be easy to coordinate, because of the Maytag-Google partnership.

The more we think about how such a situation would actually manifest, the more clearly we see why it hasn’t yet happened. The real smart house, when it finally manifests, will be a mishmash of many different technologies, made by many different companies. The missing piece is the orchestration of all the other pieces.

How will that orchestration manifest? Operators can use their analytics to solve some problems. Application developers will see market gaps to fill. And savvy consumers will have unique problems based on their smart lifestyles that they could mash up themselves—so long as operators give them the platform to do so. In other words, operators need to allow users to play in their sandbox.

Because the orchestration will ultimately have to be done by (or on behalf of) the consumer, we call it consumption orchestration.

For consumption orchestration to work, it is necessary to empower the orchestrators to get access to the upstream services they need. And to do that, operators need to be sure that those services are available to begin with.

For more information, download the short paper 5G Platforms: Enabling Consumption Models by Ericsson’s Patrik Regardh, Head of Strategy for OSS and BSS.


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Pubic domain header image by Bernard Spragg.


 Related links: We Were Promised Jetpacks

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