App Insights

Apps and the Internet of Things

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The Internet of Things promises us a world where billions of devices talk to each other, constantly adjusting and responding to the data they send and receive. It’s a world where you can turn your TV on with the wave of a hand or set your alarm clock by talking to it.

Is it a world that’s going to kill the desktop, laptop or tablet app? Do we still need apps in the automatic world of the IoT?

Our insights

At the moment, apps act as a ‘middleman’ for the Internet of Things – the point at which human interface takes place. All your devices speak to each other, and they speak to you through the medium of apps.

The ultimate vision of the IoT is to render this central device (the PC, tablet, or even the smartphone) irrelevant, at least from the end user’s point of view. Users should be able to point at heaters or talk to clocks, and the devices will do the right things. Not only that, the change will have a knock on effect on the devices in the system..

As an example, think about an alarm clock that’s linked to traffic news and adjusts your wake up call accordingly. Not only that, it will talk to your kettle to brew that little bit earlier and switch the heating on to accommodate a slightly chillier start to the day. The environment adjusts seamlessly around you.

From this design standpoint apps are part of a transition process – but they will also always be essential for the people who look after the IoT.

To return to the traffic analogy, think about buses. Buses don’t just turn up. Someone has to sit down and work out routes and timetables, and show the drivers where to go and when to get there. The IoT is the same – someone has to set the devices up in the first place and be able to adjust their settings to keep them working together. Even if that ‘control’ interface isn’t called an app, it will be to all intents and purposes – a recognisable piece of software, programmed on a conventional computer.

What do apps do in the IoT?

Smartphones and tablets haven’t made laptops obsolete, but they have made them specialised – only people who work with text really need a keyboard. Likewise, automatic sensors may enable devices to collect and react to data, but the people who work with them will still need a device that reports data and enables user control.

We’re going to look at three applications of the same sensor technology – and three reasons why an app still needs to be involved.

Smart roads: Sensors out in the world deliver data about pollution, weather and traffic to cars with compatible receivers: but there needs to be some sort of user interface for reviewing this information and deciding what to do with it. That’s an app. Likewise, driverless cars will require some kind of override option for sudden changes of plan, forgettings of keys and chance encounters on the road, showing the need for control apps.

Biometric monitoring: Medical care needs a range of information from a range of sensors, and benefits from swift, informed decision making. A patient’s pulse, blood oxygen level, breathing, body temperature, electrocardiogram (ECG), blood sugar, skin response, blood pressure and physical position may all need monitoring by distinct devices. All these devices can talk to each other, but they need to present feedback to a doctor, nurse or other human decision maker, because there is no programmable “correct solution” to complex health problems.

Controlled environments: Greenhouses for particularly fragile edible flowers, for instance, need to respond to changes in the external environment in the blink of an eye. Environments such as these need to stay constant – there’s no dynamic-decision-making involved, so they can be safely automated. The app’s important here because users need a way to set up the environment in the first place: the same greenhouse might grow half a dozen crops during a year and each might have its own scrupulous environmental needs.

At the moment, we’re still carrying our phones everywhere, so these are the medium through which we interact with software. Eventually, new developments may make the phone and thus the app disappear, but we’re not there yet – and the new technologies will still need to be programmed and controlled. The app won’t die: it’ll evolve.


For a concrete example of app control helping with smart architecture, check out the app we designed with enModus.