Sunday, February 20, 2011

Internet of Things

I, many times wonder, just where the management schools and management gurus were before the watershed year 1991. I will most likely research that topic some day and write about it too. But for now let us see what was special about 1991. I call 1991 a watershed year because it was called the ‘Year of the Internet’ – the year when the TCP/IP protocol suite made its way out of ARPANET and MIT/UCLA and started reaching out to the masses at large. This is my conjecture that the great management thought processes and the schools of thought that continuously generate and/or evolve alternative revenue streams (of which we have excess of these days), also germinated in that year.

In a way, I agree with Malcolm Gladwell’s thought process in Outliers – a classy book published couple of years ago – in which he argues that the main secret of success is the advantage (or just luck) of being born at the right time. He says that the many successful men today just were born between 1953 and 1956 and hence were of a right age by the year 1975 to take advantage of the personal computer revolution. He cites many examples including the greats such as Paul Allen (1953), Bill Joy (1954), Scott McNealy (1954), Steve Jobs (1955), Eric Schmidt (1955), Bill Gates (1955), and Steve Ballmer (1956). Be that as it may, I believe in this theory because I was mid-way in my life around the year 1991 and have seen both the worlds – the Internet-free and Internet-infested worlds and have honestly enjoyed both. But the fact is if I was not born at the right time to experiment with Internet at the University, then I would have missed out on a great learning concept.

Coming back to the “Year of the Internet” and birth of management catch-phrases (which were introduced by you-know-who), the juggernaut has rolled along. 1994, like 1991, changed the face of the world being tagged the ‘Year of the Web’ when the then clumsy looking HTTP protocol made its appearance on the world-stage for the first time outside of CERN premises. Since 1994, each year has been tagged year of something or the other. The trivialization, howsoever metaphorical, has led us to 2011 where the year is actually tagged as the ‘Year of Internet of Things’. We have passed through eras of advertising, searching, mobile commerce, gaming where each has been reduced to a commodity thus waiting for a new innovation each time. Just what is ‘Internet of Things’ and why it is interesting is what I will explain. Like a true neutral observer, I will detail in next couple of paragraphs, the benefits it will bring and likewise the challenges it will bring in. I will never forecast the future as since 1991, each and every forecast has faded away in comparison to reality.

Technically speaking, ‘Internet of Things’ describes a world-scenario where trillions of devices will interconnect and communicate. It will integrate ‘things’ such as the ubiquitous communication layer, pervasive computing including cloud computing and ambient intelligence (wondering what it is?). Internet of Things is a vision where ‘things’ such as ‘every day objects’ such as all home appliances are readable, recognizable, addressable, locatable and controllable via the Internet.

If Internet revolution connected billions of people world-wide through computers and mobile phones, Internet of Things would connect trillions of devices billions of people use. Imagine if all the objects in the world had all the information that they needed to function optimally. Buildings would adjust themselves according to the temperature. Ovens would cook things for exactly the right time. The handles of umbrellas would glow when it was about to rain. We long ago inserted "intelligence" into objects in the form of thermostats and the like; the internet of Things will extend this principle exponentially, giving us unprecedented control over the objects that surround us.

Energy monitoring, infrastructure security and transport safety mechanisms are just some of the envisioned applications that will have tremendous boost due to the Internet of Things. It is being enabled because of technology revolution that includes miniaturization of devices, emergence of IPv6 to resolve finite address space issues, mobile phones as data capturing devices and availability of low-power energy neutral devices.

The vision is great but the challenges are plenty. It is just a vision and its roadmap has many hurdles. Its primary acceptance would depend upon the progress of machine-to-machine interfaces and protocols of electronic communication, sensors, RFID, actuators etc.

As I see it today, the challenges would extend to robustness, responsiveness, privacy among other things, which have no clear cut answers today. Why should you know how much my oven takes to bake a cake? But what is the problem if your oven can learn from mine if I baked one a few minutes ago and use that learning to do a perfect bake for you?

As an article on the topic in ‘The Economist’ summarized a month or two ago, it may just turn out to be the ‘Year of Internet of Hype’.

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