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

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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.

12 Responses to “We can’t let the Internet of Things become the Tyranny of Things”

  1. Michael A

    Nest and apple keep things closed because (at least I think this is why) others will turn out miserable results using their finely tuned work. They don’t want to be associated with crappy outcomes, but honestly that is exactly why (again my opinion) android is so fractured.

    Nest is smart to keep it tight for now. They don’t want to own the world, but they want to be part of a world that includes great design, thoughtful programming, and flawless execution.

    Frankly, I want to be part of that world too. Isn’t there enough garbage to choose from (?) and while all that choice drives down costs (@chris jefferies) the result is less than stellar.

    In my business, Nest will save us nearly $900 this year alone. Good investment, without doubt.

  2. mikewhite

    Love the Nest, would like an API and more integration. But feel Nest is just getting started. (Isn’t there an unused zigbee chip in it… that has to have a future purpose). Philips Hue might be a better example (they’ve just announced their API). Get the Nest and Hue talking and you’ve got lighting and climate control.

  3. Scott – with respect to your reference to Netflix – are you referring to their Remote Control or Queue API? Or having multiple set top boxes or Smart TVs support the Netflix streaming service? I am trying to undersand the definition of “Open” you are using. Netflix uses Web-technology based APIs but the licensing is NOT open. You have to have a contract or agreement with Netflix before you can support the Netflix streaming service.

    Nest Thermostat no wonder is a brilliant design, and with time will expose more functionality. However it is not open today…

    Things can be done well with “closed” approaches and exposing building additional functionality using APIs.

  4. Jonathan Ouellette

    Cloud, Big Data and the Internet of Things have indeed come upon us so quickly that many of us are still struggling to discern what it all means. The integration of things – Nest being one of many early examples of this – is likely the point. The “Internet of Everything” Economy that Cisco CEO John Chambers seems to see clearly, has much to do with the massive consumer systems integration opportunity that it will enable. To the author’s point – ubiquitous access and openness is absolutely necessary in order to unlock maximum growth potential. If we get access right in the “Internet of Everything,” the decentralization of value creation opportunities made possible in the “Integration Economy” that follows will unleash innovation-driven growth that goes faster, deeper and further than we’ve seen before.

  5. Good points all. And we believe that neither the Apple not the Android models are going to work. IoT will need a ‘third-way’ — if you will — across a number of technical and commercial dimensions. There may in fact be many ‘third-ways’ and they may take best practices from Apple or Android ecosystems, but, lifting and applying those models will not get people where they would like to be with IoT.

    IoT development and deployment will be created or killed by the strength of the developer community and their focus on authentic value creation for people.

    APIs are a start, but, not the end …

  6. reelyActive

    Agreed with the two comments above. We’d all love there to be a brilliant example of consumer IoT to illustrate articles like this. But the real victories in consumer IoT will be those that set up painlessly, provide consistent value without requiring attention, and interface elegantly with other systems via the cloud. Moreover, the greatest growth in IoT will continue to be far from the consumer space. It would be interesting to hear the author’s thoughts on the challenges of making/keeping that open!

  7. “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.”

    It might be an object of desire, but it’s still a single temperature sensor for the whole house placed in the hall just as the old one was.

    Not to mention, the Nest costs more than a subsidized iPhone where a new programmable thermostat from a local hardware store can be had for about $35.

    The truly brilliant solution would have every room’s light switch plate converted to a wireless temperature/light/presence sensor and inform the house gateway to control the “ponderous machine of steel and natural gas”… for less than the cost of a subsidized iPhone.

    And that gateway would be based on open and standard APIs so it could be easily extended to help interact with and manage other systems.

    I’ll have a booth at Maker Faire 2013 to show how this could work…