IoT device design means many tradeoffs, many ugly

Karen Field

April 05, 2014

Karen FieldApril 05, 2014

There’s no Internet-enabled device I’ve made that I would give to a non-geek friend,” said embedded software engineer Elecia White, who spoke at the Embedded Systems Conference at EE Live!

The 100+ audience consisted of a mix of hardware, software, and firmware engineers, plus one marketing guy who cleverly showed up to hear an engineer’s candid critique of his profession.

“I feel lied to,” said White, who operates the consulting company Logical Elegance. She has implemented code and worked on hardware for several connected devices, including a WiFi scale and a Bluetooth robotic exoskeleton. But based on her first-hand experiences, she’s concluded that today’s Internet of Things is still too unreliable, difficult-to-use, unconfigurable, insecure, and can cause users unnecessary frustration.

White’s advice? Don’t believe every marketing pitch about the IoT. And focus on working through the myriad device tradeoffs with the express purpose of creating happy customers.

And if you can’t make your customers happy, at least don’t make them unhappy.

Consumers need your product to work right out of the box, she said. “Users are most frustrated with the configuration step. If they turn it on and feel stupid right away, they are never going to get the opportunity to love your product, no matter how great it may be.”

The tradeoffs encountered in designing a product for the Internet of Things run the gamut from selecting a connection option to managing firmware updates. Unfortunately, there are few choices that don’t include at least one ugly tradeoff. To wit, White says she has never picked a communication protocol that didn’t at some point make her wish that she had picked something else.

“You’re really burdening your customer when your choice is a power hog, but on the other hand it’s pretty onerous to expect him to buy a server,” White said, comparing a modem to the proprietary network ANT.

To make matters worse, White pointed out that, because the cloud is far away from the typical embedded developer’s core skill set, there’s a need to learn new skills and computer languages.

While new solutions are coming out almost every day that can make connecting to the cloud easier for an embedded engineer, White pointed out an ugly tradeoff there, too: “I’m not so sure that I want them to have my server data. Or at least I want the option to get it back in the future if I want it.”

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