Internet of Things – Hype & Hope

(I had the privilege of speaking about IOT at the Oxford Technology and Media forum yesterday. What follows is the gist of my session and some thoughts from the panel discussion)

The tech industry is often guilty of pushing technology solutions to consumer without focusing on the benefits, the emotions and simplicity. Invariably, businesses that get it, do better at selling tech to consumers. Apple are clearly the masters at it, but UK customers will know that after many years of ‘interactive television’ discussions, what customers bought were ‘sky plus’ and ‘red button services’. (The technology didn’t actually deliver on the promise, but that’s a different story).

So we come to the Internet of Things and I believe, we’ve swung to a different end of the pendulum. We’ve created a pithy, catchy phrase, something that everybody can relate to and not be daunted by the jargon. I would personally have preferred the internet of stuff (stuff is cooler than things). But the internet of things means (pardon the expression) bugger-all when it comes to actually buying, implementing or solving something.

Maybe I’m being harsh. It’s a catch-all word conveying a general wave of technologies much like “digital convergence” in the broadcast and comms space. But it’s a very loaded phrase and masks many layers of complexity that haven’t yet been resolved to the point where they can be implemented. Or even understood by the consumer.

The IOT includes communication between machines, between people and machines, and also between people and people via machines. It includes wearables, and all manners of sensors, and an ever increasing ocean of data, an implicit assumption of an economically viable, reliable and available network. And so far, very few standards.

After all, we’re all spoilt by the Internet – in the world of standards driven browsers, we only had to worry about the browser environment. The most complex questions in the early days of the web included ‘web safe’ colours. And later, pushing the limits of HTML. You never had to think about the OS, the device (are you viewing the website on a Dell or IBM laptop?) You didn’t have to think about whether the user was sitting or standing or walking around. And all you had to know was a URL, and the internet would find the website from over 50 million computers in a fraction of a second. Even transactions and ecommerce are now taken for granted. 

In the IOT world, all these are non-standard and have to be thought from scratch. What’s the user interface of a ‘thing’? If it’s a sensor on a coffee machine vs a door, how should we access the data, how can interact with the thing? The design challenge moves from an ‘interface’ design to an experience and even environment design. Who designs the experience of walking into a retail store which is armed with iBeacons or other sensors? Design challenge will range from fitting an antenna while managing heat dissipation, to figuring out how to retail product aesthetics while adding a bunch of tech.

Service design has been a term in vogue for a few months now, but is fundamental to the creation of IOT models. We must take a design centric view and build from there. That’s the only way we’ll get around to focusing on the right problems to solve, to ensure adoption.

As with all emerging technologies, we’re in the world of ‘compound change’ – where each layer builds on previous layers, and so it creates an exponential change curve, which is near impossible for us to predict, since we’re still very used to thinking in linear terms. What is intuitive to me, is that we’ll get entirely new companies dominating the IOT space, in the way that FB, LinkedIn and Twitter dominate the social sphere, and Google and Amazon dominate the web, Apple and Samsung dominate mobile devices and Microsoft and Intel dominated the Desktop world.

Because, this will take a whole new business model. It will shift value, destroy old models and create entirely new services. Most often, we think of new tech as better ways of doing what we do today. So the ‘better’ model leads us to thinking about how our fridge will tell us when it’s out of milk. Rather than ‘different’ models – perhaps our fridge telling us which of the foods we’re storing has the earliest use-by date, so we can modify our consumption appropriately. Or other more imaginative and useful behaviours.

Undoubtedly the way in which business models will evolve will involve adding layers of services to existing and new products. The value of the service will outstrip the value of the product. You may pay more for the service of tracking your weight and the feedback on your lifestyle and diet, than you do for the weighing scale itself. In fact asset ownership models may change, with companies willing to give you the asset for free in order to lock you into the service, or simply, follow an asset leasing model, which brings down your outlay but enables longer term revenue stream for the seller. Soon we should be able to view this information and services layer explicitly and this explicit-isation of the service and information layer may be one of the biggest sources of consumer value in the IOT. This would enable us to understand better the total cost of any product (say a sweater, or a vaccuum cleaner) and make different choices on that basis. It would also align value realisation with costs – imagine a washing machine which you lease and pay per use.

Although it’s tempting to consider just the things we acquire and own, there are all those things we use, which form the asset base for service delivery, from smart meters, to hotel rooms and railway stations to rented cars. These can all also follow the same principles of creating explicit service and information layers, so that maintenance, usage, and cost and value can all be tracked more easily. Then you have natural resource and public environments – weather, floods, pollution tracking, and more.

As has been noted, it is almost impossible to talk about IOT and emerging technology of any kind without talking about data, privacy and security. I used to think, like everybody else, about a data brokerage, or info-mediary. Now I think data-brokerage should be a feature built into every product. A data brokerage module will ensure that consumers data is stored, transacted and valued in a way that is fair to both sides, and in a transparent manner. Really, you can’t ask for more than that.

Undoubtedly the IOT is a big deal. We’re talking about billions of connected devices changing the way we live our everyday lives. The transformativer potential of this can barely be imagined. I just hope we use this to solve some of the bigger problems we face – the energy crisis, caring for an ageing population, getting supplies more efficiently to the needy, across the world. And not spending too much time debating whether our kettle should gossip with our washing machine.


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