Earlier this week, technology writer Daniel Newman decried the proliferation of incompatible Internet of Things technologies(IoT).
By way of simple definition, the "Internet of Things" is everything connected to the Internet that isn’t a computer, smartphone or tablet. It is "things" like your smart thermostat and motion detector, security cameras, engine monitors, railroad car trackers, etc.
Writing in Forbes, Newman said " . . . all of these companies are building their strategies with a wide range of different platforms, creating a complex and messy web of tech that is already tripping over itself. That problem will only increase as we move toward greater IoT adoption." He then made a powerful, articulate, persuasive case for standardizing IoT worldwide.
I disagree with all of it.
The wrong question is, "How do we get all of these devices to talk to each other?” That's because there’s no particular reason why we need them to.
I don’t care about 30 billion devices inter-operating; I care about my 30 devices inter-operating. How to do that is the right question.
That gives us a problem we can manage, and manage well.
It can best be described by analogy to a similar, more familiar situation, the advent of personal computing. It was invented by Apple, expanded by IBM and Microsoft into a ubiquitous but chaotically messy global juggernaut, and partially corralled by Apple again.
The reason the Mac concept worked so well is twofold. First, Apple created and owned the closed Macintosh ecosystem and controlled everything, where the IBM/Microsoft/Intel model tried to play nicely with everyone.
Controlling everything meant that Apple wasn’t plagued by the locusts attendant to thousands of independent bits of hardware and software trying to climb onto a single platform. The word "driver" appeared nowhere in Apple user documentation (and, not incidentally, Googling "Mac plus virus" got you zero results.)
Second, Apple’s approach was to supply solutions, where IBM’s was to supply hardware and software. "The computer for the rest of us" and "It simply works" weren’t just marketing slogans; they were the genetic code of a carefully planned system.
Apple had no interest in getting their ecosystem to work with everything on the planet. There was no need for it. (At least initially; as it happens, the two models starting to look a lot like each other, and now you can even run Windows on Mac computers.)
So we ended up with two robust, completely incompatible systems that fought it out for world domination by constant innovation, to the benefit of all of us.
That IBM/Microsoft/Intel initially succeeded where Apple struggled was, like the Betacam versus VHS, more about money and muscle than merit.
A similar situation will prevail in the Internet of Things.
Getting everything to talk to everything else is not only practically impossible, it’s not necessary, and attempting it will impede progress and leave us in technological gridlock.
Instead, what we need is a small handful of "uberprotocols" or consortia competing fiercely with each other. At first they’ll be like IBM and Apple at the beginning, when they split their message between business/hobbyists on the one hand and education/ordinary mortals on the other but eventually were able to blur those distinctions.
The geek versus ordinary mortal tension will be there in the IoT as well. Not to generalize too wildly, but right now, at least in the home automation domain, the IoT is a hobbyist’s adventure rather than a mainstream experience. Walk into a retail establishment and chat up the home automation salesperson and you’re going to hear all about protocols, configuration, pairing, hubs, and so forth.
A certain segment of the population reading this article are probably thinking, "So what?"
But, I’ll tell you so what. If we don’t change the pitch, home automation is going to remain the realm of hobbyists. The competing pitch is going to be to never mention any of those things, but instead to talk about things like scenes ("When I leave home, make sure the lights are off, the alarm system is set, the heat is down, and the garage door is closed, and don’t bother me with how you do it") a completely different approach comprising different technology.
What we need is an uberprotocol focused on the experience, not the gadgets. We’re overloaded with useless junk that’s confusing the landscape and creating skeptics instead of adopters. We need to shift from what’s possible to what matters, and create systems built around that concept.
The next big thing won’t be a device; it’ll be a brilliant way to get subsets of devices to talk to one another, and at the same time understand us, turning a stage full of independent dancers, all trying to one-up each other, into a tightly choreographed ballet.
The only way to get this done is with ecosystems that start off closed, and only gradually expand following initial acceptance followed by wider adoption.
It’s hard to imagine something as game-changing as an iPod, iPhone or Kindle coming onto the market (although nobody expected those, either).
The Amazon Echo has already surpassed three million units in sales but it’s a better incarnation of existing concepts, not a breakthrough. Homekit, Weave, Smart Things and others are adding to the cacophony because they’re new and haven’t found their way yet, although they’re on the right track.
And, as a matter of fact, they’re starting to talk to each other. The mix of "allowable" conversations is chaotic and expands almost daily, but it’s happening.
If they do find their way, however, it won’t be because they solved inter-operability.
That’s a technical issue that should never even come to a consumer’s attention.
What they have to solve is how to get all of these devices and systems to provide real value to the people who buy them, without bothering them with arcane technical issues along the way.
Make it worth my while and I’ll buy all my stuff from within your ecosystem and let you have the data you need to make it all work.
We’re not there yet. It’s going to take some major advances in artificial intelligence (i.e., more neural network than algorithmic) to get machines to deal with the kind of all-too-human inconsistency and ambiguity to which we’re all heir yet have little difficulty understanding in other humans.
They have to deal with exceptions and incorporate them smoothly into the neural net, by guessing, trying again, and incorporating the experiences holistically.
What we need is an Alfred the Butler, who understands, suggests, on occasion insists, but ultimately obeys and learns.
That will be the "genius" home, not just smart. (Fair warning: If you’re the kind of person who can’t go to the bathroom if your dog is watching, or are prone to profusely thanking interactive voice response robots at the end of "conversations," you’re not going to like the truly smart, voice-driven home. The feeling of intrusion will be overwhelming).
Closed ecosystems, in which members inside each system compete against one another and the system competes as a whole against other systems, is what’s going to make this all work and will answer the "right" question — Can’t we all just get along without looking like each other?
Lee Gruenfeld is a Principal with the TechPar Group in New York, a boutique consulting firm consisting exclusively of former C-level executives and "Big Four" partners. He was Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for Support.com, Senior Vice President and General Manager of a SaaS division he created for a technology company in Las Vegas, national head of professional services for computing pioneer Tymshare, and a Partner in the management consulting practice of Deloitte in New York and Los Angeles. Lee is also the award-winning author of fourteen critically-acclaimed, best-selling works of fiction and non-fiction. For more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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