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A Sniff Test for the Internet of Things

This is not related to the Industrial IoT, but this article on an IoT air freshener deserves to be shared somewhere. 

By David Berkowitz and originally published in Ad Age

My air freshener is connected to the internet. Now I know what the internet of things smells like: floral notes covering up overpriced hardware and overcomplicated software that provide a marginal benefit.

When the Febreze Home internet-connected plug-in air freshener arrived in the mail this month, I opened the box and beheld yet another questionable impulse buy. I ordered it during this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in January just after Procter & Gamble announced it. If this was a typical Kickstarter project, it would have arrived in time for the 2017 holiday season after several competitive products already hit the market. P&G actually stuck to its promised ship date, which is the most remarkable aspect of this product’s debut.

This harbinger of the connected home offers a whiff of what’s ahead for marketers, manufacturers, and consumers. Here is how Febreze Home holds up on some key attributes.

Pay for the privilege: The hardware, with one pack of scented oil, sells for $49. Comparable dispensers that aren’t internet enabled sell for $5-$10. That’s a minimum of a 500-percent markup for adding internet connectivity. These kinds of markups are common with other household products such as light bulbs, though the discrepancy should diminish somewhat over time.

So much for a plug-in: Remember how Glade (a rival brand from SC Johnson) used to have the jingle that went, “Plug it in, plug it in”? That is not the case with connected devices. The new theme song should go something like, “Plug it in, plug it in. And then go through a 50-step process that we will now explain to you in painstaking detail, and you will still have to call that 15-year-old kid who hooks up your TV and shows you how to add people on Snapchat.”

The entire setup process felt absurd. First, I needed to find and download the Febreze Connect app on my iPhone – for my air freshener. Next, I had to connect to a custom WiFi network, requiring me to look up my home network’s password – for my air freshener. Then, I had to wait for a firmware update (really) – for my air freshener. Finally, to differentiate multiple devices should I ever buy a case of them, I had to come up with a name – for my air freshener (mine goes by the name Feberky). The user experience will need to improve, especially for lower-cost devices, so that they are truly plug-and-play.

Questioning convenience: There are supposedly some benefits to having an air freshener that is connected to the internet. Febreze Home’s website says you can “customize settings for each room with more devices.” I live in a cramped Manhattan apartment, and it would cost $300 to place these air fresheners all over my home. The device detects the temperature and humidity in the room, and also includes light sensors to double as a night light. For those with a Nest thermostat, the dispenser can learn when rooms need more freshness. Scent levels can be controlled from the mobile app.

How many people are so obsessed with their air fresheners that any of this will matter? In time, as more products connect to the internet, people will expect passive utility rather than a need for active management. If devices can run in the background, communicate with each other, and only require attention at critical moments, then they won’t be as much of a hassle. Expecting consumers to download a new app and continue to use it isn’t realistic when moving beyond the earliest adopters.

Partner or perish: My bank, Capital One, flagged that I had been charged twice for the order. I didn’t know which order they were referencing until I called the company,Gamechanger Products, and they told me they manufactured the Febreze device. They’re so closely involved that they even registered the domain in December 2015. While it’s unclear how much of Febreze Home was outsourced to Gamechanger or developed together with them, P&G isn’t handling all of this in-house. Given that the domain was registered a month before the product’s launch, I suspect that this all came together very quickly, with minimal risk. That’s one way to get faster buy-in for an experiment.

I had a client once who described a pilot program we did together as a failure, and he said the f-word with the biggest cheek-stretching grin I’ve ever seen. We both understood everything that could possibly go wrong, and everything did in fact go wrong. But he was excited to get something in the market, learn from it, and try again. P&G seems ready to fail fast here and, in the words of shampoo bottles, “lather, rise, and repeat.”

What’s next? Someone, somewhere at P&G is probably trying to figure out which other brands’ products will connect to the internet. Dawn? Gillette? Charmin? Pampers? It all sounds crazy now, but give it time. How long before a $0.25 diaper automatically tracks a baby’s output and flags caretakers when something seems amiss?

There are limits, of course. Few companies will have the resolve to launch and iterate these products until they become viable for the mass market. Kudos to P&G for getting this in market, adhering to their schedule, and offering a whiff of the future. The current odor doesn’t smell right, but it will be replaced soon enough.

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