You know the “Next Big Thing” is no longer waiting in the wings when you hear it dissected on talk radio. That’s now the case with the Industrial Internet — or the Internet of Things, or the collision of software and hardware, or the convergence of the virtual and real worlds, or whatever you want to call it. It has emerged from academe and the high tech redoubts of Silicon Valley, and invaded the mainstream media.
Of course, it’s been “here” for a while, in the form of intelligent devices, such as the Nest Thermostat, and initiatives like the Open Auto Alliance, an effort involving Audi, GM, Honda , Hyundai, Google and Nvidia to develop an open-source, Android-based software platform for cars.
But we are now tap-dancing one of those darn tipping points again. As software-enhanced objects, cheap sensors, and wireless technology combine to connect everything and everybody with every other thing and person, a general awareness is dawning. People — all people, not just the technologically proficient — understand their lives are about to change big time. This is creating some hand-wringing anxiety as well as giddy anticipation, and rightly so: the parameters and consequences of the Internet of Things remain vague.
One guy who has a better handle than most on its possible impacts is data journalist Jon Bruner. With Joi Ito, the director of MIT’s Media Lab, Bruner is directing Solid, O’Reilly’s new conference on the merging of the real and the virtual (scheduled for May 21 – 22 at Fort Mason in San Francisco). He recently mused on the true import of the Internet of Things, sharing a few apercus:
Big data invades the real world
“Think of the progress companies have made in exploiting big data to measure and optimize everything connected to software,” said Bruner. “It utterly transformed finance, scientific research and advertising. At Solid, we’re going to be talking about taking big data, and the intelligence it implies, into the physical world via the cloud. We’re going to see prosaic objects transformed into highly intelligent devices that will network and exert impacts far beyond their original intent. Consider what the Nest Thermostat means on a planetary scale. Heating and cooling constitute a huge chunk of global energy use. Something that minimizes energy waste will positively affect both civilization and the biosphere.”
Smart hardware for the masses
If we accommodate the metaphor of an intelligent hardware explosion, we’re now at that first microsecond following the point when things went boom.
“Until recently, software-enhanced hardware was something only large companies could develop and market,” Bruner observed. “But as cloud-capable software components and sensors become cheaper, barriers to developing and deploying smart hardware are falling. Smaller companies, research labs — even individuals — are starting to gain access to this technology. Ultimately, you won’t have to have deep pockets to be a player. The production of new products and systems, the connection of systems, is accelerating. It’s similar to the impact cloud-computing services had on web development. Amazon Web Services came along and offered slices of powerful computing capacity for a few dollars a month. That meant you no longer had to empty your wallet to buy servers and contract bandwidth. We’re seeing a similar trend with hardware development. It’s simultaneously breaking down into areas of expertise and becoming commoditized. You can now buy smart components and put them together like you want, and you can hire expertise as you need it. The time and expense required for prototyping and bringing products to market will keep falling.”
Crowdfunding as a supercharger
“Crowdfunding isn’t a fad,” emphasized Bruner. “It’s a critical part of the collision between hardware and software. Really, it’s the emblematic funding mechanism for the whole trend. To a large degree, crowdfunding is now used for proof of concept and market testing. In the future, I think we’ll see it used to launch major projects. It won’t supplant VC, of course, but it will complement and support it.”
Mounting pressure on brick and mortar
Bruner said traditional retailers will face ever-increasing stresses as the physical world gets connected. E-commerce platforms such as Quirky and ShopLocket represent new models of niche, direct-to-consumer sales that brick-and-mortar stores simply don’t have room to support.
“Online platforms can maintain huge catalogues of products and cater to specialized customer bases,” said Bruner. “Best Buy and Walmart have to sell high volumes of relatively few products to make money. That means the long-term trend is against them as the variety of smart devices proliferates. People favor exclusivity in the products they buy. It allows them to express personal taste and establish individuality. People may keep buying computers at Best Buy, but computers will only be a part — and likely a diminishing part — of the intelligent environment.”
Design beyond the screen
There is a dystopian aspect to the convergence of hardware and software, of course: the pervasive sense that we will never be able to unplug the connections, that our privacy will be ever more compromised, that our enthrallment with our devices will be total, that our value will be measured not in our human worth, but as consumer units whose tastes and habits must be monetized.
Bruner acknowledges that compromised privacy is and will remain an issue. But he thinks the Internet of Things could liberate us — if freedom is what we want.
“I think an abundance of intelligent hardware in our environment could mediate our interaction with software in a positive way,” he said. “Right now, we’re glued to screens and keyboards. That will be less and less necessary in an intelligent environment. The technology will fade into the background. Take the driverless car. It’s here now, and it’ll ultimately become the standard. You won’t be fixated on the traffic, or the GPS screen on the dashboard. You’ll get in, you’ll say ‘take me to work,’ and then you can get on with the business of being human — maybe even have a stimulating conversation with other people in the car. Our choices will have been enhanced tremendously. On the other hand — people being people — they may simply choose to use their free time in the driverless car to get on to their iPads.”
If you liked this article, you might be interested in a new report, “Building a Solid World,” that explores the key trends and developments that are accelerating the growth of a software-enhanced, networked physical world. (Download the free report.)