Scott Jenson

Online thermostats and lightbulbs are just the beginning. This decade, our mission will be helping people make sense of online experiences outside of the screen.

Our keynote, Scott Jenson, prototyped Apple’s Newton, lead product design at Symbian, and managed Google’s Mobile UX group. Today, he’s turned his attention to the Internet of Things. And he brings us a warning.

Photo of Scott JensonIAS: What kind of experiences do you think Internet of Things (IoT) will let us create? How will they be different from what we have today?

SJ: I honestly think it’s impossible to tell. If you look at the history of technology, you see over and over that anything new is first applied to the old way of doing things: film was initially used to record stage plays, telephones were meant to broadcast operas. We’ll never get to the new stuff if we don’t understand what’s holding us back.

My rant over the last year has been about making sure we aren’t shackled by our past. Too many people make assumptions about IoT that are just extensions of our desktop paradigm of paying for apps.

Just as the Internet overturned long entrenched business and technical models, so too with IoT. But you’ll have to let go of the past to find them.

The protocols that the technologists ‘sorted out’ make it nearly impossible for my friend to play a song on my car stereo… Designers need to work with technologists to make sure the core scenarios around setup and security are done properly and simply.

IAS: People are waking up to Internet of Things, but it feels niche — like mobile web before iPhone. What is going to happen to ignite this area?

SJ: One thing that is happening now is inexpensive, low-power ‘system on a chip’ processors that give you computation and network connectivity.

Cheap chips like that start to make it practical to build computation into nearly anything with a power supply (things without power supplies are coming as well but that’s a bit harder).

This gets you the raw horse power but immediately runs into a problem: there is now a tower of babble where every ‘smart device’ in your home or office has trouble talking to the others.

Our real challenge is to realize this isn’t a 1990s ‘software lock in’ business model. The focus of the market is going to swing back to hardware. The software should hold things together and we must not let it become a source of proprietary control.

This is why the early Internet grew. Any protocol that starts to build a communication standard will get all sorts of devices flocking to it. Don’t get me wrong, it’ll be hard and companies like Apple and Sony will try to make it all about their proprietary system, but if we don’t push for this, the alternative is pure chaos.

IAS: Shouldn’t we just wait for the technologists to sort it out so we can start designing?

SJ: [Laughs] Now you’re just trying to wind me, up aren’t you? For me, Bluetooth was the first product that made it painfully clear that a technology that isn’t designed with the user in mind cripples you forever.

The protocols that the technologists ‘sorted out’ make it nearly impossible for my friend to play a song on my car stereo. Technically, he can. But practically, it’s not worth the trouble.

Designers need to work with technologists to make sure the core scenarios around setup and security are done properly and simply.

More than likely the technology will need to change, deeply, in order to accommodate these requirements. Issues like this need to be addressed early on before the standard is set in stone. Once the API is fixed, all designers have left is to carefully word a hopelessly useless error dialog box. We must build a better future than that.