“Internet of Things” is a temporary term

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Pilgrim Beart on the scale, challenges, and opportunities of the IoT.


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In this week’s Radar Podcast, O’Reilly’s Mary Treseler chatted with Pilgrim Beart about co-founding his company, AlertMe, and about why the scale of the Internet of Things creates as many challenges as it does opportunities. He also talked about the “gnarly problems” emerging from consumer wants and behaviors.

The IoT as a special category

There’s much discussion about what the term “Internet of Things” actually means and how, exactly, we should categorize the new technology emerging. In discussing the potential of the IoT, Beart explained the term serves a purpose now, but in time, will simply revert to “Internet”:

A problem we all have is that the phrase “the Internet of Things” has come to mean everything and therefore nothing, so that’s an incredibly general question. It’s almost like asking, what’s the potential of the Internet? I think, actually that’s probably the first thing to say is that in 10 years’ time, I’m pretty confident we’ll look back and be surprised that we treated the Internet of Things as a special category because I think in 10 years’ time we’ll probably just call it the Internet.

Most of our experiences and most of our devices will be what we now call Internet of Things, but in 10 years’ time, we’ll just call it the Internet, a little bit like the way we treated WAP as a special thing when it became possible to browse the Internet on the mobile phone. But now we don’t think anything of it, and of course we browse the Internet on our phones. What else would you do? I think a similar transition is coming.

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Scaling the IoT

The potential of the IoT, Beart noted, lies in its scale, but scale is also the source of potential problems. For the IoT to scale properly, what we really need is to embrace a set of standards. Beart said we’re getting close:

I think the huge potential of the Internet of Things, in a nutshell, though, is its scale. If you just look at the number of connected devices in our lives and the way that that’s set to grow — that creates enormous potential …. I think scale is the driver for all its potential, and it’s also the source of a lot of the potential problems with it, which we need to look at. On balance, I put scale on both sides of the equation. I think standards are absolutely necessary. There’s still a lot of work being done there. In fact, there’s a lot of progress being made.

I think we are actually pretty close to a set of standards, which will let us bring about the Internet of Things properly…there’s still several years of shaking out to do, but I don’t think there’s any rocket science problem in standards in the Internet of Things. I think most of the stuff we need has already been invented, it just has not been deployed and rolled out yet. That’s something that has to be done, but I don’t think there’s any really gnarly problems to wrestle with there. Just lots of good work.

The gnarly problems

The gnarly problems, Beart said, lie with consumer behaviors and issues of privacy and security:

I think where the gnarly problems come is the softer stuff that’s more to do with humans and consumer wants and behaviors and so on. … I think people sometimes conflate [privacy] with security. I think security is a very important topic. It’s primarily a technical topic, and to a large extent, it’s a very well-understood one. I think if you pay attention to security, it is possible to get it right, whereas privacy is something that’s much more fluid and is much more about social norms, expectations, implicit contracts between consumers and providers…even beyond the IOT — how Facebook treats your data, etc.

Society obviously is going through a massive process of experimentation to understand what is reasonable and what people want to achieve there, and I think the Internet of Things accentuates that because it collects so much more data, and often does so quite subconsciously or invisibly — when you’re interacting with an Internet-connected TV or Facebook, or something. … At least you know you’re doing it. It’s not something you do unknowingly, whereas the Internet of Things can capture data about you without you even knowing that’s happening. In some ways, that’s the great thing about the Internet of Things — it can disappear into the background. But that also could lead to privacy invasion on a monumental scale unless we understand what the norms are.

There are things happening on both sides of the Atlantic about that — within Europe, there’s quite a lot of legislation coming down the pipe. In America, it seems there’s less legislation, but still a lot of discussion around what’s the right approach.

You can listen to the podcast in the player embedded above or download it through Stitcher, TuneIn, SoundCloud, or iTunes.

Public domain image via Internet Archive on Flickr.

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