Why you should care
The future is coming, and that means devices that are smarter than your fifth-grader.
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So you’re depressed. What if something happened like an alarm went off, or a spouse or doctor was contacted, when signs of depression — you sitting at home, generally unmoving, or not going out to meet friends — added up? If it sounds Orwellian, take it up with Mirko Ross, a German entrepreneur who wants the chance to gather all that data to track your health and happiness.
His idea is Digital Worx, a company that would link up stuff like a Fitbit (the armband that tracks movements) to a smart home (which could point out that someone hasn’t moved their butt from the couch in six hours). If you get over the creep factor, you might see how big — and cool — a tech challenge Ross’ idea is. It would involve integrating two components of what industry heads call the Internet of Things: the explosion of some 50 billion devices, beyond just your Android phone and MacBook, that some expect to be connected to the Web by 2050. The trouble, though, is that Ross can’t make this idea happen just yet — because different devices out there can’t effectively communicate with each other. Not today, anyway.
Ross’ roadblock is typical of the trouble facing the exciting world of the Internet of Things, which Cisco, an information technology leader, estimates will offer some $14.4 trillion in value by 2022. It’s currently a veritable Tower of Babel: Tons of stuff — from bathroom scales and entertainment systems on the fun side to cities and factories on the industrial side — getting connected to the Web. But all those things can’t talk to each other, work with each other or otherwise connect because they don’t yet speak the same language. And without that interoperability, aka a common language, we’ll only get access to roughly half of the value of this exciting boom, warns Michael Chui, partner at the McKinsey Global Institute in San Francisco. Which should make us all give ourselves a collective slap on the forehead for delaying and possibly stunting the next great tech boom.
For the Internet of Things to explode, many say a democratic trickle-down effect will need to happen.
How do we get to that common language? Not by putting entrepreneurs like Ross through the ringer. He began by using Samsung’s technology as a base for his system but ran up against a wall when he realized Samsung’s software couldn’t — wouldn’t, intentionally — talk to the other systems he wanted to link up with. “It’s costing a lot of energy,” Ross, a two-time entrepreneur, says. “We could make it happen much faster.” For their part, big internet-of-things players would likely argue that building the tech is the most important thing for now — translation can’t come until afterward. (Samsung, G.E. and Cisco did not respond to requests for comment.)
One solution, of course, would be a universal language. (Some, like Qualcomm, have suggested this.) Though ideal, that large undertaking seems unlikely. A couple of other possibilities: A translator or gateway might link up between various types of devices — like Nest to Fitbit, or a transit system to the smart-grid. Some companies like Sierra Monitor (where a relative works) are already doing this for the Industrial IoT. Or, should companies build their own systems, they might publish “dictionaries” so developers can know how to communicate with a given device. This latter is how most of the Internet as we know it operates today.
To be fair, some of this interoperability is emerging already. Take maker-friendly Arduino, an open-source technology that lets anyone grab the hardware and software they need to create connected devices. That kind of ubiquitously available, do-it-yourself stuff is the bread and butter of today’s democratic tech-zeitgeist — think Amazon Web Services and open-source word processors that have allowed startuppers and laypeople who would have otherwise dropped a hundred grand on launching a company to do it in a fraction of the cost. For the Internet of Things to explode, many say a similar democratic trickle-down effect will need to happen — the tech will need to get cheaper so the everyday folks can get to #disrupting, already.
What the future holds, says Chui, is likely a bit of both: big companies and small startups; those that want to keep their tech to themselves and those that will release software to make innovation more accessible. The early incarnations of all these big-time companies getting in on the game are everywhere, from Google’s $3 billion acquisition of smart-thermostat company Nest to General Electric’s various moves in the market. But these kinds of players are the likeliest to be proprietary players. Which could keep the technology from reaching makers and developers who might advance it, says Parker Higgins, activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for digital civil liberties.
The Internet really took off because it was an open standard, experts say. “A lot of people could have made a lot of money by being really proprietary — but instead they opened it up, and as a result other people made a lot of money,” says Higgins. The Internet of Things tech world, he adds, “aspires to that, but forgets openness was not a nice benefit — it was a fundamental cause for the Internet taking hold.” What’s more, the lack of openness threatens a chilling effect, in which developers don’t get creative building the stuff and establishing the standards to make divergent systems communicate — “it doesn’t really become worthwhile,” Higgins warns.
Ultimately, though, adapting to any new technology isn’t just about fiddling through the wires or the sensors or the keyboards, Chui points out. It’s about getting entire companies to understand and adapt. And management may be the messiest science of all.