So there’s been all this talk about the Internet of Things. What the heck is it? You may well be cautious. Especially since it’s currently perched at the peak of the Gartner Hype curve for 2014.
So I started thinking about this by listing all the ‘things’ I interact with. From my house & home to the trains I take and from the clothes I wear to the hotel room I might live in on my travel. Obviously you can get many levels in the hierarchy. The home is a complex construct, and comprises many sub-things. Example – rooms, walls, plumbing. Some of these, such as ‘heating’ may have further sub-components – radiators, boilers, etc.
The resultant picture looks something like this, at a very high level. Of course, this is hugely inadequate for detail, but you get the conceptual model.
Then I started thinking about an appropriately benign and traditionally less intelligent ‘thing’ – like a window. Everybody has windows at home and they affect our everyday lives. They have states (open/ shut), based on the environment and conditions. For example we associate safety, air-conditioning and sunlight with windows being open or closed, and based on the weather, time of day, etc.
So I drew this table of the different emotions and feelings we derive, the specific benefits they deliver, the activity or state associated with this and the conditions under which these states need to be enabled.
At this point, I came to an important realisation. Products can be smart and controllable, they can even react to the environment, all without the help of the internet. For example, we have some Velux(TM) windows on the skylights. These windows come with a remote control, they can be opened and closed and they can also react to weather conditions and close if left open when it starts to rain. So they are actually smart, in some way, and possess the capability to communicate. They’re just not on the internet. The challenge of this model is that my ability to control these outcomes is limited to the pre-set automations and my being in close proximity – i.e. at home. (Disclaimer: I’m obviously referring to the specific models we have installed. Velux does not have any IOT proclamations on it’s website, but this is not to say that they don’t have or are planning to launch models that come with their own smart phone apps, which allow control of windows from anywhere.)
This excellent article by Michael Porter & James Heppelman posits that all products in future should have mechanical/ electrical components, but also software components and communication components. These 3 collectively make products smarter and ultimately evolve to product systems (e.g. home security) and then to a ‘system of systems’ model (e.g. connected homes) – which spans an entire problem domain, according to the authors. The kind of activities that we can perform on smart products evolves from monitoring, to control, optimisation and then to autonomy. Ultimately this leads, according to the authors about improved competitive performance via operational efficiencies and strategic positioning choices. Often, forcing the question ‘what business are we in?’
So for example the Velux windows we have installed, have a rain sensor, which allows them to automatically close if it starts to rain, they don’t have a sun-sensor, which allows them to re-open when the sun comes out again. Of course, I may not want them to open just because the sun is out. So it needs my intervention. I can only do this from home, currently, which is a constraint. Putting the Velux windows to one side, for all my windows, I would also like to be reminded if ground floor windows are left open at night or when I’m away. If I had pollen allergies, I would probably like to be alerted if the pollen count is too high, or have the windows close. I would like to be able to open all multiple windows or close them, even if I’m not at home, based on weather conditions. So you see, we have a need for state information (monitoring) as well as control. I might even have settings for ‘sunny day’ which applies a set of commands to all windows. This is the optimisation that the article above refers to. These control should extend to blinds (effectively these are a part of my window settings). This is where we consider windows as a product system, whereas currently, we tend to have completely different suppliers for these 2 products (windows and curtains/blinds). Any maker of smart windows must therefore consider blinds and curtains as a part of their product system.
Now, considering any smart and connected product, we could argue that they have sensors, which generate data, which are used by apps, which enable access and control of the product, and provide additional functions that ultimately deliver a benefit. The sensors are obviously on-board the device/ product. But the data generated could be anywhere, typically on a cloud, so that the apps and the access can take place through any connected control point (such as a mobile phone).
This is where the internet of things really kicks in. In my previous example of the Velux window models which we have installed, the data, access, applications and controls all sit within a closed system involving the window and the remote control. You could argue therefore that a true IOT model requires a cloud based data and access model and an ability to use the data and control/ monitor the product from any device and application that is authorised.
Of course, everybody looking at the Internet of things should bear in mind Bruce Sterling’s SPIME model (derived from space + time). According to Sterling, the SPIME object has 6 facets: identification, location, data mining, computer aided design & construction, prototyping and lifecycle management. Using these, we can track the history of any object from concept to grave.
Stepping back a bit, the Internet of Things seems like a catch-all neologism to encapsulate a number of related concepts. It involves smart and connected products, multiple types of open and closed networks, robotics, cloud based access, decision analytics, and functions ranging from monitoring, control and optimisation. It can involve single products or groups of products. Many smart products today are autonomously capable of performing advanced functions which have nothing to do with the internet of anything. The Roomba vacuum cleaner is a great example of an exceptional product that doesn’t really need to connect to the Internet.
Most individual products also tend to ignore or be indifferent to the network effect, which kicks in when we consider multiple elements in the same network. For example, my windows may be rain-sensitive, but I might have other devices, products and appliances at home which may be influenced by the occurrence of rain. Does each product need to have it’s own rain sensor? In my IOT wish list, my smart windows can communicate to other appliances at home. So for example, the washing machine can run an extra spin cycle when it rains, so clothes dry in the same time, and conversely when it’s sunny, it can reduce the spin cycle to conserve energy. For this to happen, I need a network standard for my connected home network that multiple devices can connect to (i.e. my window can ‘talk’ to my washing machine). A problem that the DLNA among many others, has been seeking to solve for years.
The true value of the IOT thus seems to become clearer when we step into the details and away from buzzwords. Much like anything else really! And the winners as always will be those businesses which are able to truly focus on design thinking, benefits and elegance of use, and marry great experiences with excellent engineering. And those companies who will be bold enough to rethink their business models and honestly answer the question ‘what business are we in?’ – allowing them to move from selling a product to delivering a composite service which may include a physical product. It might even mean changing the commercial model where the product is only ‘leased’ to the consumer who actually buys the service rather than acquire an asset.
Meanwhile I will dream about smart, connected windows which can deliver safety, sunshine, comfort to my home. As far as consumers are concerned, the I in IOT should really stand for ‘invisible technology’.