The technology industry is, unfortunately, driven by bright shiny objects, and venture capitalists are subject to a herd mentality, always looking for the next big thing. This produces very weird pseudo-markets such as “Service Oriented Architecture (SOA).”
This phenomenon is also fueled by conference organizers looking for the next big theme: search engine marketers looking for cheap-keyword real estate, young-gun analysts looking to make their name on a new Gartner Magic Quadrant, and glory-seeking entrepreneurs looking to get in on the gold rush.
This creates a strange condition where lots of companies huddle together under a pretty small tent.
So what is the Internet of Things? It’s basically an observation that large numbers of sensors, wearable computers, and consumer appliances can all be connected to Internet Protocol networks.
The problem is that there’s already an Internet of Things… it’s called the Internet.
Seriously, this is reminiscent of the rise of “Web 2.0.” The concept of adding a version number to the Internet had absolutely no basis in technical specification: It was yet another one of these fake trends. Yes, there was a rise of social networking companies in this phase, but nothing was materially different from the Internet as it had existed since day one. Part of what’s insulting is that all of these “great new ideas” are not new; the industry just feels the need to “reinvent” things from time to time. Look at how “virtual reality” is making a comeback in the form of Oculus, JauntVR (cinematic VR), and other VR headsets.
Yes, the development of IPv6 allows for a radically expanded address space for more devices. But the shift to IPv6 can hardly be considered a radical shift to enable the emergence of a new Internet, either 2.0 or one made up of “things.” The wonderful thing about IPv6 is that it actually is based on a real change in technology, and not just some kind of technology fashion trend. (Whatever happened to IPv5, by the way?) But the “market-tecture” of the Internet of Things is much more grandiose than just a wider IP address space: It’s an attempt to add grandiosity to something that is happening as a matter of course.
The emergence of these fake trends is an amazing social phenomenon. There are a large number of moving parts that go into “creating” these, and each one generates a whole new set of company names, analyst reports, keyword purchases, venture capital investments and hand-waving. Some of these are based on more fundamental transitions in underlying technologies, such as the emergence of a Solid-State Disk (SSD) industry based on NAND Flash and 3D NAND Flash technologies.
Sometimes all it takes for something to become a large trend is a big company with a big marketing budget. For example, in-memory computing is experiencing a big expansion right now because Oracle’s entered into the space with its 12c in-memory database option. Nevermind that SAP has sold its HANA in-memory database for the past three years; now that Oracle has thrown their hat into the ring, it’s become an official phenomenon. In-memory computing has existed for as long as there’s been computing—but now that it’s being pushed by leading vendors, it’s become a thing.
(It would actually be newsworthy if there were a huge advance in memory technology, such as what companies such as Crossbar have promised us with Resistive RAM (ReRAM), or by Intel or any of the other companies pursuing Nonvolatile DRAM. That would fundamentally change the game of computing. Another interesting candidate is Hewlett-Packard’s “The Machine,” which is a showcase for Memristor technology.)
The increase in the number of mobile devices and sensors (yes, the Internet of Things) is actually driving infrastructure providers towards in-memory computing options. So in a sense, there is interconnection between all of the surging trends in technology. And yes, the Internet of Things will create more “Big Data.”
Malcom Gladwell, who wrote The Tipping Point, could write a piece exploring the expansion of these mini- and micro-bubbles. In a way, these bubbles resemble the Multiverse theory in Cosmology, which suggests that the universe we live in is one of many similar universes that are constantly being created and destroyed, all while we remain blissfully unaware of them. From the inside of a bubble like the Internet of Things, you are unable to conceive of a universe outside of the one in which you reside, unable to imagine a universe where IoT doesn’t matter.
To say that the Internet of Things is all hype may be too strong. Indeed, there are more intelligent devices and sensors such as the NEST thermostat and spy cameras (Dropcam) going up all over the place. But the idea that this trend is driven entirely by “things” misses a key point: You are the center of your Internet—or as pundits would put it, the Internet is a mirror. None of the “things” would have any meaning if they weren’t pointed at humans and most importantly at you.
Obviously there are industrial sensors; the average city of one million inhabitants includes over a billion sensors, according to statistics from the most recent Quantified Self conference. Body sensors are another interesting area: This dazzling array of sensors will include face-recognition algorithms for personal identification and emotional-pattern recognition. Already the self-quantification movement relies on sensors for simple measurements such as weight and blood pressure (Withings), heart rate (Polar), steps taken (fitbit), posture (Lumo), breathing (Spire) and even dog activity (Whistle). On the Internet, nobody truly knows if you’re a dog.
Upcoming sensors will unite APIs for recording chemicals in your bloodstream (Sano), blood glucose (DexCom), and gastrointestinal bacteria (uBiome), not to mention your genome (23andMe). There’s even a fork that measures your eating behaviors (Hapilabs).
Yet all of these biological sensors and self-quantification systems are “things” connected to the Internet not for their own sake, but for the sake of people: that’s your genome or microbiome on the Internet. So again, all of these “things” aren’t really part of an Internet of Things—they’re part of the same Internet we’ve always been building.
And yes, all of these sensors pumping information into the cloud does give rise to “Big Data.” There may be some method to all this madness, but it requires considerable discernment to know the difference between a fundamental technological advance and one of these trend bandwagons. Another nascent “2.0″ phenomenon is “machine learning” or “the algorithms formerly known as artificial intelligence.” Once all of the data starts to be interpreted by learning machines, the potential for advancement accelerates, but also the potential for creepiness. I’ve written before about how “The Future will be Warm and Creepy.”
The bottom line is that the “Internet of Things” cannot be a new shiny thing. There is no Internet of Things that’s different from “The Internet.” Because on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a thing.
Miko Matsumura is a Vice President at Hazelcast, an open source in-memory data grid company. He is a 20-year veteran of Silicon Valley.
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