Saturday, September 6, 2014

Is the Internet of Things the Real Thing?

The Internet of Things: an exciting new world with a digital nervous system or a nightmare where objects take decisions while we are unconscious?

15 years ago, when the term was first coined, it was about assigning everything around us a unique identity with RFID tags, to enable all material things to talk to each other and save us time for gathering and using information. As RFID tags dropped below 1 cent cost, and sensors, modems and devices are getting smaller, smarter and cheaper, this vision is moving closer to reality.

The latest Gartner's Hype Cycle (August 2014) places the Internet of Things at the peak of Inflated Expectations, while Big Data evolving in tandem with IoT has already started to fall into the through of disillusionment, getting ready to join mobile health and cloud computing right there on the bottom of the through.

Consumers are not ready to embrace the flood of smart wearables and appliances - as they don't really know what to do with them, don't perceive their value and are concerned about privacy and prices.

Clay Christensen's theory of "disruptive technology" emphasizes that technologies tend to get better at a faster rate than users' needs increase. Next Big Thing often starts as an expensive "toy". When the telephone was first introduced it could only be afforded by the rich and it could only carry a signal over a short distance. If Watson really had said in 1943 that "there is a world market for maybe five computers", as Gordon Bell pointed out much later, it would have held true for some ten years.

The first generation of IoT devices fell short of user needs and was rather primitive. Over a third of people who bought a smart wearable abandoned it a few months later. Yet, the "new" has never been hotter. It seems a new wearable is launching every week and we are constantly waiting for something newer and better, hoping it will finally answer the question "what can we do now that we could not do before?"

However, the current generation of "smart things" is focused mostly on better designed hardware and higher-end consumers. Fashionable elegant-looking devices are supposed to make wearables more appealing and "design thinking" is one of today's hottest buzzwords. Withings Activit√©, Fitbit pendants from Tory Burch,  Yves B√©har's designed Vessyl, Diane Von Furstenberg's Google glass, Rebecca Minkoff's tech-enabled jewelry, and the new bracelet from Intel - MICA  - highlighted by pearls and other precious stones - are getting ready to conquer attention of consumers and developers. Especially developers - as the size of the market will depend on the number of developer-entrepreneurs creating value in it.

The app economy taught hardware manufacturers that when people experiment they find ways to create value, often in unexpected ways.  But it also taught developers that they need to invest considerable time to build a marketable app and the chances of that app to make money are about 1 in 25,000. As the average age of developers keeps decreasing getting into the middle and high school years, the main benefit of app development becomes education and learning by itself. But will this be sufficient for the Internet of Things or will inter-networked things remain a toy for the wealthy?

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