I recently sat down with Pilgrim Beart, co-founder of AlertMe, which he recently sold to British Gas for $100 million. Beart is a computer engineer and founder of several startups, including his latest venture 1248.
Identifying the gap between technology and consumers: How AlertMe was founded
I asked Beart about the early thinking that led him and his co founder, Adrian Critchlow, to create AlertMe. The focus seems simple — identify user need. Beart explained:
I co-founded AlertMe with Adrian Critchlow. He was from more of a Web services background … My background was more embedded technology. Over a series of lunches in Cambridge where we both lived at the time, we just got to discussing two things, really. One was the way that technology was going. Technology push — what changes were happening that made certain things inevitable, and also consumer pull. What were the gaps that technology wasn’t really addressing?
To some extent we were discussing at quite a high level the intersection of those two, perhaps not quite in that rational way, but as we talked about things we were interested in, that’s essentially what we were doing. We were triangulating between the technology push and the consumer pull, and trying to spot things that essentially would be inevitable because of those two things. Then that led us to thinking about the connected home platform and what could the killer apps for the connected home be, and isn’t it strange how, if you compare the home to the car for example, cars have a large number of computers in them, and the computers all work together seamlessly and invisibly to keep you safe, keep you secure, save you energy, and so on.
In the home, you have a similar number of computers, but they’re not talking to each other, and as a result, it’s really far from ideal. You have no idea what’s going on in your home most of the time, and it’s not energy efficient, it’s not secure, etc. We saw a huge opportunity there, and we saw the potential for some technological advances to help address those problems.
Connected homes and the automobile industry: “Designing for the average consumer”
Beart and I talked more about the similarities and differences between the connected home industry and the automobile industry. He noted that when it comes to identifying user needs and behavior for connected homes, there is no average consumer:
Interestingly, I was speaking at an automobile conference last week, and I think there are interesting lessons to be learned in both directions; I think cars are ahead, in that they are ecosystems that are very well-designed and finished off, and they have to be for reasons of safety and so on, and they can be because they’re delivered by one brand owne — VW or BMW or whoever delivers your car — and they make sure it all works. Obviously, the home is different because you don’t live in an Apple home or a Google home. Some people might get close to that, but your home is much more of a Wild West, and therefore it’s much harder to deliver that complete experience.
One of the things I’ve learned about the home from my AlertMe days is just the diversity of people’s homes and lives. There is no such thing as the average consumer. There’s an enormous diversity of ways that people live in their homes, much more so than cars; I think that’s what makes it hard.
On the other hand, though, the way in which the home is perhaps ahead is that because it is this Wild West, because consumers can bring their own devices into their homes and do whatever they want, then in areas like IPTV and audio streaming, and of course smartphones and so on, people are bringing many more modern technologies into their homes more quickly than into their cars.
The car has a seven-year development cycle, so you get into a new car and you look at the satellite navigation and you think, ‘Well that looks a bit old-fashioned.’ You can’t pinch to zoom or talk to it, and so on, and it’s … I think it’s an interesting comparison, but I think the analogy probably breaks down at a certain point.
Standards, privacy, and the Internet of Things
Beart and I discussed the big hairy problems that need to be addressed in order for the promise of IoT to be realized. He touched on scale, standards, and talked a good deal about the spongy topic of privacy:
I think scale is the driver, for all its potential, and it’s also the source of a lot of the potential problems. On balance, I put scale on both sides of the equation. I think standards are absolutely necessary. There’s still a lot of work being done there. In fact, there’s a lot of progress being made. I think we are actually pretty close to a set of standards that will let us bring about the Internet of Things properly. Almost none of them are actually being used right now, though, so there’s still several years of shaking out to do, but I don’t think there’s any rocket science problem in standards in the Internet of Things. I think most of the stuff we need has already been invented; it just has not been deployed and rolled out yet, so that’s something that has to be done, but I don’t think there’s any really gnarly problems to wrestle with there.
I think where the gnarly problems come in is the softer stuff that’s more to do with humans and consumer wants and behaviors, and so on. Privacy is a very interesting one. I think people sometimes conflate that with security. Security is a very important topic, but it’s primarily a technical topic, and to a large extent it’s a very well-understood one. If you pay attention to security, it is possible to get it right, whereas privacy is something that’s much more fluid and is much more about social norms, expectations, implicit contracts between consumers and providers. There’s a lot there, even beyond the IoT — how Facebook treats your data, etc.
Society obviously is going through a massive process of experimentation to understand what is reasonable and what people want to achieve. The Internet of Things just accentuates that because it collects so much more data and often does so quite subconsciously or invisibly, such as when you’re interacting with an Internet-connected TV, or Facebook, or something — those are areas where people have raised privacy concerns recently.
You can listen to the entire interview on the SoundCloud player above or on our SoundCloud stream.