The Internet of Things might not be what you're hoping for

The Internet of Things might not be what you're hoping for

Summary: The Internet of Things promises to be give us some really cool stuff, but there's a problem...


Take a look at this chart. It shows Google's search trends for the term "internet of things", aka "IoT". That blip at the end lines up with CES -- the tipping point where suddenly talking about "IoT" became immensely fashionable.

Google Trends for Internet of Things
Google Trends for "internet of things".

CES may have started the flywheel spinning, but it was Google's acquisition of Nest that built up sufficient momentum such that the whole IoT thing may not stop for years.

But there's a problem with IoT, and it's ably summed up by internet satirists Joy of Tech:

Joy of Tech -- Google Nest
Rather well put.


Joy of Tech's riff keys into some online chatter that happened after Google's announcement about trust and privacy. In essence, whilst people were generally cool with trusting Nest's founders with private data about their home, they were not generally cool with trusting Google.

In this scenario, can you think of anyone who would be generally trusted? Microsoft? Apple? Facebook? They all have their own agenda when it comes to personal data. Really, they have the same agenda, namely that in order to realise their enormous investment in technology, they somehow have to turn you into some kind of asset.

To do that, they have to start to "close up", by which I mean "become less open". When companies become less open, they become less trusted, and we get this effect that we're seeing with Google and Nest.

Google to me is the most fascinating of the "hypercompanies" that drive our industry at the moment. What Google seem to do is try to understand and change society through their products. Personally, I believe their motto "don't be evil", even if it does seem so oddly on-the-money in 2014 that it's easy to believe it's origin was a time travelling Brin sending it back to himself from some far future to head off many, many PR problems.

In order to change society though Google has to change behaviour of the individuals that make up society. And they only way they can do this is by "stretching" the behaviour of their users by giving them tools which are different to those they had before.

It just looks "evil" because no one, including the Google engineerings, really understands the societal impact of their products before they end up in the market.

Free love

IoT can be most easily understood as devices that don't demand direct interaction. Wearables fit nicely into this IoT definition. Things like Fitbit and Pebble hang around and get fiddled with occasionally, but largely just do their job in the background. Nest is like this too.

The path of evolution to IoT follows nicely the path of post-PC. IoT works because you don't need a PC hanging around as an oversized dongle just for configuring and drawing data off of these devices. They find a network -- somehow -- and are configured via an app. Data from the IoT device gets sucked up into the cloud. It's very low touch, and very easy.

The problem that we now face is that the internet into which IoT is being born is philosophically very different to the internet into which the web was born.

The internet of twenty-plus years ago and prior was a place of free love and open standards. It all came from academia where commercial pressures were low. As we moved into the era where internet connectivity onto PCs was the norm -- I usually take this to be related to the introduction of Windows 95 -- what we as a society has done with the internet has had an uneasy relationship with this "free love", uncommercial philosophy.

For example, we all know you can read a whole load of content online without paying for it. That's a result of the philosophical view that information should be free, which itself comes from academia's influence on the internet. Those people who produce content have had to learn how to work around the limitation of this this philosophy in order to add some level of commercial realism.

To put it another way, if you started to build the internet and web from scratch putting the commercial imperatives of content producers first, you wouldn't build it like it has been built.

As we start to build the IoT, everyone involved knows that anything they do is primarily a commercial venture. Pebble want to sell smartwatches. Fitbit want to sell… Fitbits. Google wants to sell flashy thermostats and smoke detectors.

Well, that's not true. Pebble want to sell their smartwatches, not Samsungs. Fitbit doesn't want to sell Nike+ Fuelbands, and so on.

And that's where the tension comes in, because if you had built a Pebble in 1995 you probably would have made it all open standards, and wide open, and transparent, and all lovely and free love because the internet was a non-commercial state.

To IoT provides, the internet isn't a resilient network based on open standards, the internet is a convenient substrate that acts as a tool to connect a particular vendor's IoT devices up to a particular vendor's cloud. That is fundamentally different -- it's a philosophy of being first and foremost closed.


Another way to look at this is that there is an inherent inverse relationship between "money" and "open". Specifically, the more money you want to take out of a technology business, the less open it can be.

This is now all to do with scale. In order to be viable business you have to pour in a huge amount of money to get a meaningful number of users (acquisition), and when you've done that the last thing you want to do is lose them (retention).

Both of those activities mean traditional marketing spend, and that means driving potential customers towards your value proposition and keeping them there.

We see this today with things like Google+ not having a proper API. If Google had built that in 2001, it would have been wide open. That's just one example of how as we go forward, things at scale will become more closed.

Whilst I think the internet of things is going to be huge, and fun, and valuable, I also think it won't look anything like an open internet. We'll have cool things, but they'll all be siloed away in a closed, proprietary fashion.


What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Joy of Tech cartoon used with kind permission

Topics: Cloud, Tapping M2M: The Internet of Things

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  • The Internet of Things = euphemism for: the universal spying on you

    1984 never looked this bad. This is Big Brother on steroids.
  • "All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing."

  • You Hang On To Your Foil Hat ...

    ... While I sign up.

    Paranoia is a wonderful thing, but seriously, it's BORING.
  • It's the ads, not the "investments," that got us here.

    "namely that in order to realise their enormous investment in technology, they somehow have to turn you into some kind of asset."

    It has little to do with their investment in tech.

    It has everything to do with the consumer falling hook, line, and sinker for "free" products, not realizing there is a tradeoff to having products free.

    The business could care less how they get the money for their investments, and if consumers were to actually be fine with paying for their products, they'd be getting their investment anyways.

    "The internet of twenty-plus years ago and prior was a place of free love and open standards."

    Mostly because it was supported by academia and government. Academia got its money from the government and from tuition, and the government gets its money from taxes.

    Today, the situation is different - Google doesn't get its money from tuition, nor from any sort of taxes. Google gets its money from ads.

    "For example, we all know you can read a whole load of content online without paying for it."

    Sadly, we don't even get THE OPTION to pay for it at ZDNet. I'd love for ZDNet to offer an ad-free experience for a price. Why not start there?

    The problem isn't the money itself - the problem is where the money comes from. If you insist that everything be free, even if that means putting up ads, yeah we get the scenario of everything being closed and people being the product.

    Because the money has to come from somewhere, and if businesses can't get the money directly from consumers, they have to get the money in a more indirect fashion via ads.

    And ads basically make people the product, because relevancy is king and it can be difficult to serve relevant ads with no information about the users.

    We got here because advertising is the only way to make things free. Not because of business investments.

    If the future of "the internet of things" is unexpectedly cheap or free, the future of them is ads and closed ecosystems.

    It's the ads, not the "investments," that got us here.
    • The business could care less...

      Surely you mean:

      The business couldn't care less
  • It's all fun and games until...

    you start getting emails saying "we noticed your Nest is set to 64 degrees" so we thought you'd be interested in stophotflashesdotcom. I think people forget that Google is an advertisement company. What flyers are to a restaurant, technology is to Google.
  • Open vs Closed is a dilemma for companies.

    If your connection standards are proprietary, but your product on the "other end" of the link is not selling as well as your competitor's, you WANT open standards. On the other hand, if you have good sales of all of your meshing products, you WANT to keep competitors out.

    Remember VHS vs Betamax? Beta tapes (and movies) could only be sold to Betamax owners, and VHS got more players on the market first, so despite the alleged technical superiority of Beta, they lost out. Windows vs Apple, same thing. Successful providers of addon products provided both versions of their products (some software vendors even figured out how to put both on the same CD: Windows read one boot record, Mac OS read the other, leading to different sets of files).

    The best thing to happen to the PC industry as a whole was when the IBM closed system was cloned, because more people could buy them, which led to the Microsoft compatible system explosion. Apple's Mac remained a niche product for years because ONLY Apple peripherals would work with a Mac, so all the pieces remained more expensive. Better, in the opinion of the users who loved it, but more expensive. A Rolls costs more than a Ford, but on the other hand, there is a smaller market for Rolls accessories and parts than for Ford, so you can only get them FROM Rolls (and maybe a few "anointed" high end stores), and they cost much more.

    So if your computer had a proprietary bus instead of USB, and a proprietary way of accessing your own proprietary thumb drives, the drives would be much harder to find.
    • Wrong example... when you talk of Windows vs. Apple

      It was Apple which had it all-- all the market share by 1980 and when Mac was introduced there was no Windows.

      Despite all that people moved to PC's from Apples, and later in the 1980's and 90's from Mac to Windows.
  • The Internet Must Go

    It's becoming more and more important to stay up to date on the facts and to learn as much as possible about net neutrality in order to restore it. If anyone needs a refresher on the basics, here's a great mockumentary to bring you up to speed:
  • Missing the point all together IMO. People, get a clue and stop whining.

    "I also think it won't look anything like an open internet. We'll have cool things, but they'll all be siloed away in a closed, proprietary fashion."

    The internet will always be open...unless the federal government and the NSA continues to meddle.

    What the author and millions of the naieve users of Google software and FaceBook fail to admit/understand is that Google and FaceBook are NOT controlling the internet or Your voyage around the net.

    NOW, if you CHOOSE to use anything free that Google has developed or if you use FaceBook (btw. I don't), then you should understand that those sites/servcies cost money to build/maintain/expand. So far Google and FaceBook have NOT charged anyone a monthly fee or charged an annual license to use any of their products. Google even gives away its Android OS.

    At this time, its a trade off, you can use thier products/services for FREE, in exchange, you understand that you will be subjected to advertisments. The companies using Google and FaceBook to market to its users...subsidize the cost of building/maintaining/expanding those services/sites.

    UNLESS people want to start paying a monthly fee for these currently free to use products....then they simply need to NOT use them...or STF up.

    Too many twits/whiners don't seem to understand/comprehend how a business runs or continues to operate as an ongoing entity.

    Maybe we need to establish mandatory courses in High School about the fundamentals of how a business runs in a capitalist society.

    The alternative is a government built/run system/product. We all know how successful Heathcare.Gov is doing, don't we.

    Wake up to reality people..or build something from your own sweat....and then lets see you give it away for free. See how long your company survives.

    ~Best wishes keeping what you earned.
    • two things

      1. Government invented the internet around 1970 and it evolved since then
      2. Maybe we can get government to stop handing out corporate welfare for this "free market" you believe exists
      3. Who dictates your wage or value? Will your bos let you keep what you earn or does he add it to his balance sheet for himself? What governmental system do you want? Or anarchy, perhaps, floats your boat? Regulations are to business what laws are to citizens.
      • yes it was three

        If you want accuracy then buy me a bigger tablet and real keyboard. :p
  • wow... more people probably paid to spread anti google FUD.

    like Microsoft isn't doing the same sorts of things.. or wishing they'd had the foresight to not be playing catchup all the time.

    Like Facebook, Twitter and all the others are not doing the same sorts of things. I've read all the privacy agreements and I don't really see anything in Googles that are not in the others, in fact oftentimes Googles is least invasive. Sharing data between different Google units is not a big deal.. in fact it's how companies of all times have always worked. Microsoft might want you to think otherwise, but that is because they have a vested interest in it.. namely that if they make google look bad they might look better by comparison.. doesn't mean it isn't all bunk though.
    • ...and that makes it OK???

      Frankieh, here's what you're saying: "Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, etc., also invade your privacy, so that makes it OK for Google to do the same."

  • The Next Big Thing™

    We were told that 3D TVs will be the Next Big Thing™. They flopped.

    We were told that an iWatch was coming from Apple, and it would be the Next Big Thing™. Another manufacturer made one. It flopped.

    We were told that 11.1 surround sound would be the Next Big Thing™, with its "height channels." Most media doesn't even provide 7.1, and is still delivered in 5.1. Lots of extra speakers and cables for not much more value. Flop.

    We were told that Google Glass would be the Next Big Thing™. It's flopping, but we just haven't come to that conclusion yet.

    And now, we're told that the Internet of Things is the Next Big Thing™.

    If I didn't know any better, I might believe that manufacturers are constantly striving to create new ways to relieve us of our money, without having our best interests in mind.
  • I want to be the client not the product

    I think privacy paradox is the perfect explanation of current situation you describe. People love Google desing and easy-to-use products and services yet they want privacy. At the same time none want to pay for services. Users need to demend for payment services who do not need to trade with their persnal data to make money.

    Honestly I want to pay. I want to be the cliente instead of the product yet the economic paradox here is none Company want my money. I have no option to pay with real money for the service.

    It is not privacy paranoia. Data are neutral yet the purpose of use not. I want to be in control of purpose if I must pay I am fine with it yet no option.