We can’t let the Internet of Things become the Tyranny of Things

The Nest thermostat.

If you’re one to track the Q rating of tech trends, then you know the cloud is so last minute and big data is good for little more than wrapping fish at Whole Foods. For 2013, it’s all about the Internet of Things.

Cisco, a company that stands to make a lot of money by bringing the network to the disconnected objects in our lives, has released a study exploring what the networking giant is re-branding the “Internet of Everything.” On the one hand, its content is comfortably predictable – essentially a wide-eyed promise that the market is going to be really, really big. More interesting though is the accompanying blog entry by CEO John Chambers, who doesn’t just summarize his company’s findings, but actually offers an important shoutout to the Internet of Everything Economy.

My belief is that the Internet of Things (IoT) will succeed or fail based on its capacity for creating its own economy. But counting devices and multiplying by people isn’t quite the right math to satisfy this equation. The real key to IoT success is how open – and more significantly, how accessible – the technology is to independent innovators. The real numbers game counts the number of potential developers, not the number of things.

It’s economies that drive innovation

Economies are a lot more interesting than technologies, because economies tend to be the real drivers of innovation. Take Apple, which created an economy around its iPhone by designing both a platform on which third parties could innovate, and then the means to capitalize on their applications. Facebook used APIs to build their platform and create around it a diverse economy ranging from social login startups to analytics and gaming. The lesson is that if you give people the opportunity and audience, they will build interesting products.

Internet of Things exists, often badly

If you stop and look around, you will find that the Internet of Things is really already here. It quietly crept into your house on the back of consumer society’s most desirable gadgets. And moreover, we can even identify the early winners and losers. Scattered among these are the clues that suggest how we might make IoT a success the next time around.

IoT done wrong is the much maligned Internet refrigerator. Seriously? People have been talking about this dog for years now and seemingly every year some earnest manufacturer actually demonstrates yet another realization of this dubious vision, which usually consists of little more than a screen stuck onto the door like some giant fridge magnet. This is IoT designed by a committee.

IoT done wrong is all of the proprietary protocol nonsense around home entertainment. When I purchased my last TV, I also bought the same manufacturer’s BluRay player in the hope I could get away with one remote and hiding the latter in a closed cabinet. Boy, was I naïve. I finally succumbed to an expensive universal remote and an IR repeater—a brute force approach if there ever was one. This is not IoT; it is the Tyranny of Things.

IoT done right is open and integrated

It doesn’t have to be this way. Take a walk into the living room and you will find an excellent example of IoT meeting its potential. IoT done right is the Nest. A brilliant team of ex-Apple employees found a completely moribund corner of everyday technology and transformed it. They created an irresistible object of desire that quietly adapted a ponderous machine of steel and natural gas into an Internet connected device. It’s brilliant.

IoT done right is Netflix, an innovator that came up with an open API that allowed all manner of devices to integrate using simple web-based protocols. Netflix could have easily screwed this one up. They might have decided to design arcane, binary protocols optimized to support minimalist devices.

Instead, they opted for open and well-documented APIs that leverage existing web understanding. The effect was to make integration accessible instead of intimidating—and in doing so, Netflix tapped into a vast developer population. The result was a Cambrian explosion of applications and devices streaming the service. You would be hard pressed to find a modern TV, disk player, or media streamer that doesn’t now have a Netflix logo somewhere on the box.

It’s time to worry less about trying to make the Internet of Things something different. Instead, we need to focus on making it more of the same, more like, well, the internet. Declare IoT open, base it on APIs, and then step back and watch the engine of Silicon Valley engage.

Scott Morrison is chief technology officer at Layer 7  Technologies. Follow him on Twitter @KScottMorrison.

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