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

The Internet of Things promises to be give us some really cool stuff, but there's a problem...
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor

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

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