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Help! When ‘Things’ Can Send Emails

Does using ‘smart’ devices mean that our inboxes will be even more overflowing with more email? For now, probably.

by / February 7, 2016
Credit: Shutterstock/Rudie Strummer

Pop Quiz: Which of these “features” are available now using smart device(s)?

A) Your smart watch sends you an email when the battery is dying.

B) Your fax/scanner/copier sends emails when the ink is low, paper is out or other maintenance is needed.

C) Your car sends emails when it needs an oil change.

D) Your smart watch sends your friends weekly reports on how many steps you took and if you are meeting your goals.

E) Your refrigerator sends an email (or a text if you prefer) when you need more milk.

F) All of the above 

Background - Why This Email Topic Now?

Every so often, I offer a rant about an industry trend that I find somewhat puzzling or even disturbing. This is one of those blogs – and today’s topic revolves around an exploding number of new "things" sending me emails every day.

Actually this trend started to bother me back in 2010, when I first wrote about too many emails. Here’s an excerpt:

Some staff are feeling burned out. Almost two years ago the LA Times proclaimed that our email Inbox has become an In(sane)-box. "It happened with cigarettes. It happened with red meat. And carbs. And SUVs. And now it's happening with email. The preferred communication channel of millions of Americans is no longer cool." Some companies even declared email bankruptcy – and started over with new accounts. 

There's no doubt that, as a society, we've come a long way from the days when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan captivated America in the movie You've Got Mail.

So why does this trend bother me anew? If you answered the opening quiz question with the correct answer of "F" – All of the above, you know.

But getting a bit more personal and specific, here’s my recent story to help illustrate the problem.  

Like many people I got a new smart watch for Christmas – a Fitbit Surge to be exact. I eagerly opened the box on Christmas Day, charged the battery, set up my account, downloaded the app on my iPhone and synced with the watch and much more.

The setup process worked well, and the smart watch has been great for counting my steps, monitoring my sleep (when I remember to wear it to bed) and helping to motivate more activity.

What was I wasn’t expecting were the emails. Lots of them.

Let me stop and say, I really like my Fitbit Surge for numerous reasons. Nevertheless, I had no idea that I’d start receiving so many emails.

But this rant is not specifically about Fitbit or any other smart watch. (My friends tell me that other smart watches are very similar.) Nor is this just about the exploding number of other smart wearable devices we can buy.

My primary concern is that overflowing email boxes that most people ignore are starting to see another resurgence in incoming traffic that will become more spam.

For those who have temporarily postponed entering into this IoT world where everything is smart, imagine:

Your toothbrushes sending you regular reports on your plaque buildup.

Your cars sending updates on recalls or maintenance you missed.

Your clothes sending you emails telling you to lose weight.

And this is only the beginning. This UK article explores many smart devices that are here now and coming soon.

The number of incoming emails can grow as fast as the number of new connected devices in our new IoT world.

Security Concerns With New Emails

No doubt, some people will think these new emails from "things" are good, in and of themselves. But …

Have you considered the potential security concerns?

To start, the bad guys are not ignoring this trend and may be sending malware that appears to be coming from your photocopier.

Here’s an excerpt of that Graham Cluley article:

“And if I had fallen for that, the malicious macro code would have attempted to download a banking Trojan horse onto my computer. Conrad Longmore on the Dynamoo blog reports that the criminals behind this campaign are using it to infect Windows PCs with a version of the Dridex malware.”

Of course, we will probably start to see phishing scams that appear to be coming from our things. I wrote about dangerous phishing that caused breaches last year.

Final Thoughts

So what are some alternatives to email communication that should be considered as more smart devices are rolled out in more situations?

Beyond text messages, phone calls or other common methods, I think IoT manufacturers need to rethink the overall customer experience in future versions. Do we really need to send so much stuff?

If emails must be sent (which I doubt), is there a way to consolidate into fewer messages? Will new platforms provide updates on multiple smart devices at one time? Perhaps I need a customizable “health report” monthly or quarterly or yearly – and not weekly.

My advice to the growing IoT world: There are many smart companies that have offered or our offering alternatives to email. Talk to them.

In summary: My wife insists that she loves her email reports from Fitbit – even when she learns that her “battery needs a charge.”

My response: Meg Ryan loved the feeling when she heard “you’ve got mail” in 1998, but most of us felt overwhelmed by email a decade or so later.

I don’t think an email backlash will take a decade this time.

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