M2M, IoT, and the invisibility of ubiquity

From the Internet to the Internet of Everything to just plain Everything.

I started writing this post to respond to the question: “What is the difference between machine-to-machine (M2M) and the Internet of Things (IoT)?” It turns out, a post answering that question isn’t really necessary. There is already a pretty good thread on Quora that answers it.

However, with the emphasis on the technologies at play, most of the answers on Quora left me a little flat. I guess it’s because, while they are correct, they tend to focus on the details and miss the big picture. They say things like, “M2M is the plumbing and IoT is the application,” or M2M is about SMS and general packet radio service (GPRS), while IoT is about the IP stack. Or, essentially, that M2M is freighted with telecom transport-layer heritage (baggage?), while the IoT is emerging out of the upper layers of the Internet’s IP stack — which would be great except for the fact that it’s not always true. Plenty of IoT devices operate with other-than-IP protocol stacks via gateways.

I think the distinction between M2M and IoT isn’t all that important with regard to the technology stacks they employ. What’s more interesting to me is that the change in language suggests a transition. It’s a signpost plunked down in the middle of an otherwise smooth continuum, where enough of us have noticed something happening to make a name for it. We used to argue about what Web 2.0 meant; now we argue about what IoT means. Regardless of what the term “Internet of Things” actually means, its growing use represents a conceptual point of departure from what came before. Something new is happening, and we are using different words to signify it.

M2M was mostly about obtaining efficiency within existing businesses and processes. It focused on things like simplified inventory control, automated meter reading, streamlined logistics, etc. It meant a better way of doing what was being done.

IoT is different in that businesses are beginning to recognize the possibility of completely different models built on top of remote sensing and control. Like Moliere looking at his actors on stage and seeing an inkling of a very different future, we are just now gaining a sense of what is possible — but we know it’s more than just an efficiency improvement. The way we make, buy, and sell things is going to be very different, and businesses will be disrupted or disrupt themselves in the process. And this puts IoT firmly into a broader context: the digitization of not just the back office, but the business of every business.

The first 50 years of enterprise IT was, like the M2M phase of connected things, mostly about wringing efficiency out of existing processes (with a few notable exceptions, such as financial services and, of course, the web giants). We took paper files and put them in databases (often without even changing the names of things — I’m looking at you Customer Master). We wired the bureaucracy, and in the process made it faster and cheaper, but we didn’t really change it all that much. Most businesses in 1990 worked like most businesses in 1950, with O/S 360 filling in for filing cabinets and paper messages. Their CIO’s were rewarded for reducing cost and improving efficiency.

It’s clear now that even relatively staid industries are beginning to see technology as something more than a way to do things more cheaply. They are developing data analytics to suggest improvements in everything from operations to the product design process, building technology-enabled fractional-asset-as-a-service business models, and digitizing their infrastructures all the way to the edge. They previously digitized their record keeping; now they are digitizing what they do.

We hold a conference on digital operations (Velocity), on data and advanced analytics (Strata), and we are introducing our Solid conference on the collision between hardware and software, but of course these things are all part of a bigger whole. The first 20 years of the Internet connected our businesses and us; now it’s connecting everything else. Meanwhile, Moore’s Law just keeps going (with a little bit of help from parallelism), and the computational power at the edge of the network is making it come alive. Soon, the trunk of your car will have more processing power than your data center did when I started in this business.

This connected-everything-hardware-plus-software-plus-data thing that’s happening is more than M2M, it’s more than IoT, and it’s more than data science. It’s the Web 3.0 we won’t call Web 3.0 because we’ve tired of the wearying banality of that ordinal progression. But even if we were happy to keep clicking over that counter ad infinitum, Web 3.0 won’t do for another reason: we’re not talking about the web anymore. This moment is about every thing and every business, and we’re seeing the evidence in Solid registrations. Signups aren’t just the usual tech company suspects, but CxOs from all over the economic landscape.

It feels to me like this is where the Information Age really gets going, when the band that has been touring around the Bay Area for years is suddenly famous everywhere — so famous they lose their separate identity and just become part of the culture. You know, the way something truly ubiquitous doesn’t have to be named anymore? That’s where the Internet is going, too. And that’s why we’re having so much trouble with all of these Internet of X monikers. We’re trying to say that it’s not just about the web now. Fine, but it isn’t becoming the Internet of Anything or even the Internet of Everything. It’s just everything now. Our kids won’t even say “Internet.”

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