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IoT Devices and CSS in the 90's


It is impossible to miss the proliferation of Internet of Things devices nowadays. Sometimes, they come with a clear and reasonable purpose, such as gathering medical data or allowing more fine-grained control over various functions in the home. Other times, the need is less than clear — for instance, internet-connected refrigerators and toothbrushes are a very real thing, with a very real market presence but dubious benefit to consumers. The trend of adding "smart" functionality and internet connectivity to everyday devices is in full swing, with sometimes laughable results.

Here's to hoping is does not last. Every internet-connected refrigerator, toothbrush and toaster that does not serve a very specific purpose is a security liability — end users will not keep such devices updated, and will probably not notice malware until it has been present for quite some time. Computer chips are also not an unlimited resource, especially with the supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic and war, and they should not be thrown around willy-nilly in devices whose computing functionality provided minimal value and may never be used — yet as the situation with helium shows, even a finite resource can be used frivolously if people do not fully appreciate its scarcity.

I am hopeful, however, because I was alive during the 90's and early 2000's. In those days, websites were a relatively new phenomenon, and people had a tendency to go all-out when setting up their home pages: CSS styling was applied in excess, and a wide variety of backgrounds, animations, and other elements were used without regard for what we now call user-friendliness. Developers and people in general were just learning what the internet was, and wanted to try out all of the new features that it had to offer.

In the current historical period, I see a parallel to 90's websites in the modern hype surrounding the internet of things. Network-connected devices other than dedicated computers and smartphones are still relatively new, and the market, regulators, and creators of standards have yet to settle into an equilibrium that works for businesses, consumers, and the software ecosystem at large. We are still, in effect, playing around with Internet of Things technologies to see what they can do, and we will inevitably try out many options that do not bear fruit in the long run.

Thus, I have hope for the Internet of Things. In a couple of decades, once the dust has settled and the security and usability needs that we are just becoming aware of today have been codified into standards, engineering best practices and institutional knowledge, it will probably look more like websites in the 2020's: more consistent and sometimes bland, but generally more usable to the average non-technical person. And hopefully secure enough that toothbrushes do not participate in DDoS attacks.