The Internet of (actual) Things

Article by

John Newbold
Design Director & Partner

John Newbold

John Newbold

Design Director & Partner

It almost feels like a cliche to type out the term Internet of Things these days. Much has been written about the transformative potential of everyday objects having network connections. However in 'internet years', where things are often promised as being imminent, it’s been a comparatively slow market to mature.

The IoT hype has been particularly talked up when it comes to the area of the connected home. Five years ago I’d imagined that by now I’d be writing this post in a room of the future where all my inanimate objects had suddenly awoken into a sentient chorus of silent servitude for their lazy master.

I was ready for a perfectly temperate room with five different lighting modes and a voice activated entertainment system that would gently power down when my smart watch told it I had fallen asleep. As it turns out, my thermostat is still an idiot, my eyes are straining as I type because last week a light bulb blew in my lounge and I haven’t watched TV for 3 days because my logitech all-in-one remote went flat and has forgotten the codes of the other remotes that I prematurely packed away in my loft. The future it seems, is a bit harder than many of us predicted.

Suffice to say then, this would not have been a good week for me to see any more IoT vaporware. Fortunately, my optimism has been peaked after today getting a preview of some new (actual) IoT products that were not only working and imminently available, but also pretty beautiful.

Today was demo day for a new range of products from the team at Hive Home and I have to admit, it was strange to look at a thermostat and think ‘WANT’ and even stranger that the team that had produced it was the vision of 200 year old brand British Gas.

This piece of writing though is not a review of the product range; there has been plenty of those you can find elsewhere. Nor is it a piece of PR fluff because we at 383 have some vested interest in publicising Hive over other players like Nest (however, in the interests of full disclosure I do know a lot of the team at Hive and hold them in high regard. We were fortunate to have Tom Guy as a participant in our Useful Brands Playbook, but that’s where the relationship ends).

So what am I actually writing about then? Well, today for me was further confirmation that some of the most exciting innovation I expect us to see in the coming years is not solely from startup land, or from agencies like ours, or from established enterprises, but from the synthesis of all three.

The right product is the sum of many parts

The new Hive product range includes a new version of the connected thermostat, plus an upcoming range of other IoT products for around the home. The development of the range is a fine example not just of customer focused innovation, but of making the most of adaptive culture, new partnerships and emerging technologies.

Hive is essentially a startup with British Gas as a strategic investor. Aside from the gutsy gamble in funding a new venture from scratch, it’s clear that British Gas brings a lot more to the table than just cash. As an established enterprise British Gas have a huge advantage that many startups lack - infrastructure. There’s a team of experienced and trusted engineers, a reliable and efficient call centre and the not insignificant factor of millions of customers already signed on to other British Gas products. Yes, startups have amazing ideas, disruptive intentions and ballsy VC, but I also know that most of them in this space would cut off their right arm to be able to scale a product in to the sort of infrastructure that British Gas has offered Hive. We often talk about speed and nimbleness when it comes to innovation, but Hive is as much a success story of organisational scale as it is organisational agility.

So, if part one is British Gas the 200 year old giant, then part two is the Hive team themselves and their approach to product. It can’t be under estimated how hard hardware is and here a small team with the right tools have really nailed a useable device that solves problems and is desirable to boot. I’m impressed not just by the fact that stuff looks simple and works, but by the fact that there’s an ambition to carve out a user experience which is distinct from the competition. Hive isn’t a copy of anything, and it so easily could have been.

Thirdly, all the products as you’ll see from the pictures are actually properly designed. I don’t mean that in a ‘they exist’ way, I mean it in a ‘you want them way’. The last Hive thermostat was smart in function but not aesthetic; the same white box with a better brain. For this new v2, the team worked with Yves Béhar at his agency Fuse Project in Silicon Valley to develop something that you really want to play with. In particular I was taken with the mirrored finish that reflected the room around it and helped the interface float on the surface. Good product design makes you want to explore, but doesn’t frustrate you as you go. Playing with the dial I could easily set things up first time round having never used the UI before. It struck me that as much as it would’ve been easy to stick an iPad on the wall and sell it to millennials, the design here is more than eye candy. Sure, I could put this on my wall and it’d look great, but you can see immediately that you could put this on any customers wall and it will also be understood.

Lastly, Hive haven’t just emulated the approach of a startup, they’ve worked with those who were also innovating in this space too. AlertMe, founded in 2006, were acquired by British Gas for 44 million earlier this year. Much of the value in that acquisition is now starting to be seen in the broader product range that will roll out over the coming months. As the battle for the boiler tails off, the battle for the home looms much bigger. Acquiring AlertMe has not only given the teams access to technology and skills, but to a platform built for the connected home, not just the heating.

All talk and no traction

Innovation at scale can often be all talk and no traction. Large organisations need a headline for the next quarter, rather than a strategy for the future and the outcome is hack days and vouchers, not real things for real customers.

But, when you commit to a vision and truly want to deliver, it takes lots of people in lots of places to make good things can happen. Often people who profess to work in innovation can navel gaze startups and overlook infrastructure and enterprise. They stack chips on methodologies and buzzword bingo but fail to ever carry that momentum through to something finished. Innovation is not a set of tools, or a question of startup vs grownup. It’s about making ideas a reality and improving user experiences.

As much as Hive is a potential candidate for delivering on the promise of connected home it’s also a model for large scale innovation and cross team collaboration. Startups, agencies, and internal teams all have their part to play and above all, the pre-occupation here is simply making the right product.

Perhaps the biggest innovation many teams actually need is to focus on collaboration. Because when we do that, the future really does feel a little closer.