CNET’s Next Big Thing: How to Handle Ubiquitous Connectivity?

What do you get when you put a hot-headed entrepreneur, a consumer electronics exec, a mobile carrier exec and an automotive futurist together in a room? About a dozen different opinions about ubiquitous connectivity.

Cnet's "next big thing" CES 2013 panel

Photo courtesy CNET

That’s what CNET editors discovered when they hosted the Next Big Thing panel Tuesday at the International Consumer Electronics Show. The topic up for debate was the “post-mobile future,” which is yet another phrase to characterize the burgeoning “Internet of Things” trend. The overall tenor of the discussion struck a critical tone: are we headed for too much connectivity?

James Fishler, LG senior vice president of marketing, waxed poetic about washing machines that text you when it’s time to move a load to the dryer, about refrigerators that send updates to your smartphone with lists of ingredients needed for popular recipes and ovens that can be pre-heated at home with a tap on a mobile device. Though the tech needed for those functions might already exist, those appliances are still a few years away from stores. What’s clear, however, is that the smartphone is at the nexus of all of these technologies, and the number of them appearing on wireless networks is increasing exponentially.

Your phone knows everything about you,” said Sprint Product Chief Fared Adib, citing the various mechanisms — accelerometers, cameras, motion detection, GPS — built into nearly every smartphone. But there’s just one problem with these increasingly data-hungry devices: there’s not enough wireless spectrum frequency.

Carriers are focused on a number of solutions for this bandwidth scarcity problem, according to Adib, including motivating app developers to create leaner services that know how to handle a congested network. Adib also noted that carriers have pinned hopes to small cell SoCs. “You’ll be able to buy these little base stations that can be deployed on the sides of buildings — they don’t use much power, they don’t interfere with networks, but they can relieve congestion,” he said.

Sheryl Connelly, a futurist at Ford, would like to see less constant connectivity for technology’s sake, and more connectivity that creates personal engagement. “I want to see devices that give me back my time,” she said. “These devices were supposed to save our time but they steal it, and we don’t know how to disengage from them.”

While Connelly noted that its actually a luxury for today’s workers to be able to disconnect, Mark Cuban — a wealthy dot-com veteran and entrepreneur — mentioned that, while vacationing with his family on the Cayman Islands, he prefers to email rather than deal with other more present technologies like voice calls. He also argued that instant access to a decade’s worth of email has “simplified my life tremendously.”

Meanwhile, as more people are glued to text messages, even while driving, mobile carriers are taking it upon themselves to educate consumers about the danger of this behavior. “We feel we have a social responsibility to help fix the epidemic of distracted driving,” Sprint’s Adib said. “Enterprises need to tell people that it’s OK to disconnect.”

Ever the contrarian, Cuban interjected: “Texts don’t kill people. People kill people.”

What all the panelists did seem to agree upon, however, is that consumers and companies should continue the discussions about different levels of connectivity, as well as data and electricity consumption that goes with that connectivity. It’s unlikely that trends will be reversed, especially as technology and devices infiltrate every aspect of our lives. But discussions about good connectivity and bad connectivity can shape how we interact in the future.

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About the Author

Rachel Rosmarin is the chief trade show correspondent for Broadcom. Her technology reporting experience goes back a decade to the dawn of Wi-Fi, smartphones and the Mp3. She has an in-depth knowledge… More