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IoT silliness: ‘Headless’ devices without a UI

Galen Gruman | Jan. 19, 2015
Many Internet of things devices can be controlled via smartphone only. What could possibly go wrong?

Last week's Consumer Electronics Show was a hotbed of Internet of things products, most of which were plain dumb. But CES simply reflected the naïveté that permeates most IoT efforts. I'm reminded of the first dot-com bubble, where the conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley was to throw out the past and reinvent everything humanity has learned over several thousand years. That was for the dinosaurs, remember?

But in IoT's sea of silliness, you'll find islands of innovation that do what's truly needed: augment what we know with what is new.

I've previously written about Silicon Valley's misplaced obsession with remote control, rather than with the true IoT value (in fact, why the "I" stands for Internet) of connecting objects so they can act smarter together than alone. Despite the majority focus on remote-controlled coffeemakers and colored lightbulbs, products such as the Nest thermostat and smoke detector show that some in Silicon Valley actually understand the innovative potential of IoT.

The remote-control fixation isn't the only fallacy in Silicon Valley in its approach to IoT. I was reminded of another issue in recent weeks when looking for an irrigation sprinkler for my mom's house that she could use onsite and I could manage remotely. That issue is the assumption that IoT devices should have no physical user interface, but rely solely on smartphones and websites -- in other words, that IoT devices should be headless. 

Most sprinkler control boxes are difficult to set up, using obtuse, unfathomable VCR-like controls that should earn their designers a special corner of hell. I was very unhappy a few years ago when Orbit stopped making a sprinkler controller that used simple sliders, one per valve, to set watering times. I guess it was too intuitive.

My mom's no dummy, but these things befuddle her even more than they befuddle me. I wanted a modern user interface that also worked remotely.

With California's history of water shortages, I also wanted to us a smart sprinkler controller that would adjust for the weather by connecting to a network of weather stations -- a classic IoT opportunity -- and that I could troubleshoot remotely if my mom was confused on its settings.

There are now several such smart sprinkler controllers on the market, such as's Iro, as well as the inevitable bevy of Kickstarter wannabes like Blossom and Lono. But I quickly realized they share a common flaw: No user interface on the devices themselves. There's no way my mom will go to a computer to adjust her watering settings, and the last thing she wants is a smartphone.

But forget the older generation. How does a gardener, plumber, neighbor, or technician access the controller? With some products, the solution is to share your account credentials with those other people -- a bad idea.


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