March 2016

Volume 31 Number 3

[Don't Get Me Started]

The Internet of Invisible Things

By David Platt | March 2016

David PlattThe “Internet of Things” (IoT) is today’s latest buzz word. Naturally, Microsoft wants to be a player in it. To succeed, Microsoft will have to adjust its current strategy.

Microsoft’s Bryan Roper gave a presentation at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, which you can see at He describes his horror upon opening his IoT-connected clothes washer and finding a wasteful load of only two socks and a shirt.

“I can ask a really cool question of Cortana like this: ‘Hey, Cortana, show me washloads alongside family members at home.’” His PC shows a graph of wash capacity per family member, from which he deduces that his son Billy is the water-­wasting culprit.

I admire the guy’s energy, but he’s completely barking up the wrong tree. Bryan, your customer is not you. You enjoy whipping out your technology stack to discover who ran the short washload, but no one else in the universe would, because it’s easier to look at the clothes in the washer. Shirts especially tend to identify their wearer: “Whose is this with the rat’s hindquarters on it?” “Oh, that’s Daddy’s. It signifies what he doesn’t give.”

Microsoft is missing the point, demonstrating geeky things to geeks. It’s the Consumer Electronics Show, not the Ultra-Geek Hobbyist Electronics Show. Microsoft needs to think like users. That means using technology to make simple things simpler, not making complex things possible.

Someone at Microsoft does actually get it: Harry Shum, director of Microsoft Research. At the Microsoft Ignite conference last summer, Shum rephrased author Arthur C. Clarke when he said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is invisible.”

For example: you’re baking a cake, and use up the last of your chocolate. You simply say, “Hey, Cortana, remember we need more baking chocolate.” Cortana answers back: “OK, I’ve got that.” She’ll add it to your family’s shared grocery list. Whoever next goes to the supermarket will say, “Hey, Cortana, what do I need today?” and find it. Or if you get automatic deliveries, she’ll add it to the next order, and it’ll just show up. Her internal gyrations are completely invisible.

If you’re using Cortana as Big Sister to monitor your kids’ behavior, you don’t think, “Cortana, show me this collection of data sorted by that index.” You want to speak in terms of everyday life, such as something like: “Hey, Cortana, who keeps drinking all the milk and putting back the empty carton?” It’s Cortana’s job to parse that statement and answer it from whatever data she has available. “It’s that little twerp Billy again. Caught him red-handed. I’ve cut an hour off his permitted Xbox time.” Cortana might actually stop the depredations of the ghost characters, Not Me and Ida Know, who wreak havoc in Bil Keane’s Family Circus comic series.

Ida Know

I can see Cortana doing scut work so we no longer have to. Imagine an IoT cat door with an RFID reader that responds to my cat’s implanted ID chip. I won’t have to get out of my chair when I hear meowing. “Cortana, let the cat in.” “Cortana, let the cat out.” “Cortana, let the damn cat in again.” I’d eventually place a standing order: “Cortana, let the cat in or out when she wants to.” If Cortana was really smart, she’d say something like, “Simba has a vet appointment on Tuesday at four. I’ll keep her inside after midnight Monday, OK?”

The per-incident savings aren’t huge, but they add up over time. My grandchildren won’t believe that I actually had to find paper and pencil, write down my needed groceries; then find that particular list and remember to take it to the supermarket—just as my daughters can’t imagine how in my youth I had to get up off the couch to change TV channels or adjust the volume.

I’ll take Harry Shum’s idea one step further: Any sufficiently advanced technology makes other things invisible. “Cortana, mow the lawn, but be careful of the new petunias.” “Cortana, shovel the snow off my steps.” I can’t wait.

Here’s an idea: If Microsoft wants to build a better IoT mousetrap, teach Cortana to reset all the clocks in my house after a power blip, without my needing to touch anything. That’s the cool thing that’ll make consumers, not geeks, open their wallets.

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at