COVID-19 is killing our simple love of the IoT and that’s great

Companies in recent weeks have been surveying the economic devastation and uncertainty caused by COVID-19 and pulling their projects. On Thursday, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs was the latest to throw in the towel, announcing it was pulling out of the Toronto smart city project after three years and the installation of a 30-person office. Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctorow in a  blog post  blamed the decision on the “unprecedented economic uncertainty” around the world and in the Toronto real estate market in particular.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Japan’s NTT DoCoMo halting the deployment of its NB-IoT network because of the pandemic. Meanwhile, companies are pulling back on products. Examples include SiriusXM shutting down its smart connected car device, Automatic, and the abrupt about-face from smart hub maker Wink, which is now charging a subscription fee (see story below).
So why am I so happy with how COVID-19 is affecting the IoT?
A rendering of one of Sidewalk Lab’s planned pedestrian walkways. Image courtesy of Sidewalk Labs. When times get tough, it becomes easy to see which ideas make economic sense and which don’t. It also becomes clear which products provide users value and which don’t. I know I’ve already gone through every one of my business and personal subscriptions to figure out where I can cut costs. Company managers are doing the same thing, while at the same time having to justify their investments in technology and future product lines.
And Sidewalk Labs — with its heady optimism about the role technology and connectivity could play in delivering a city of the future — ultimately couldn’t deliver on its value with the Toronto project. Even after digging through the  hundreds of pages of reports  it was still unclear why Alphabet was getting involved and what it wanted to gain from being in Toronto. To be sure, privacy activists and those worried about exactly what Alphabet  wanted kicked up a huge fuss , and that didn’t help. But it’s clear that even as activists questioned the value of the project, the novel coronavirus has forced Alphabet to question it as well.
It’s no secret that IoT has been one of the most hyped buzzwords of the last five years. Vendors used to tell me that companies would call them up and literally ask for “some IoT.” But IoT isn’t pixie dust; it’s simply a way to deploy more sensors, collect information from them using ubiquitous wireless coverage, and then analyze that information using relatively cheap computing. It is, in other words, simply a way to service new insights.
Much in the way that people mistook broadband as some kind of magic wand that would bring their products back to life during the dot-com boom, people think of IoT not as a way to get insights, but as a means to change the core product. But broadband didn’t change the core product; it changed the way it was delivered. Broadband disrupted the distribution of goods and services,...