The Internet of Things (IoT) is, in theory, a big and up and coming event in the world of IT. Google, having just spent over 3 billion on Nest, prove it’s instrinsic worth and desireability. The problem I see is: what really is the Internet of Things? In fact, as I’ll attempt to demonstrate, the magic itself is not that everyday devices and machines can talk to each other, it is that these machines work in orchestration to intelligently and empathically adapt to our own lives, but that these lives are shaped by a larger, more tricky physical and regulatory presence.
To begin with, I find, you see, that any conversation about the IoT typically results in a view taken by a lot of what I'll call "Maker types", is that you can see when someone’s opened your window. Or, perhaps, you can see the temperature of your house over the Internet. Exciting, perhaps, but utlimately not particular useful. These are small scale, very focussed problems people are solving.
1. Ochestration is really where it's at
In reality, the big (and, to me, more interesting) problems that are waiting to be solved are higher-level, workflow-orientated problems. These would involve orchestration between a series of actors or sensors that interpret one's life and make intelligent decisions based on them.
An example from my own personal life - I had a wisdom tooth removed due to it fracturing in a most horrible way. Eventually the anaesthetic wore off, and I was sat at work feeling like death - so I headed home early. However, before I had left for work I had turned down my heating. I came home to a freezing home; I walked round the flat turning up the radiators and then huddled under a blanket.
Now, at no point in this story do I care about the temperature in my home until I am home. I don't care what it is when I leave. I don't care about what it is while traveling. I just care that it was cold when I got home. So the most important point here is: something needs to know I'm on my way home and that when I'm home, the temperature should be adequate. And that sounds fantastic.
If I do a bunch of research for IoT orchestration, I mostly find companies who say they're working on their product or research papers. IBM announced MessageSight in April 2013, but this focusses on larger organisations - and they typically have larger, more well-defined problems to solve.
Coming back to my fantastic situation, perhaps it is too fantastic. So let's slim it down, and say a good solution is that by the time I'm home the heating is turned on and warming things up. And this brings us to my next roadblock: physical stuff.
2. Physical things
To effect my magical scenario, we don't just simply need intelligent systems with overall awareness (or, for the good solution, some awareness) - we also need physical devices that enable this. Now I currently live in Switzerland; most homes do not have a central heating system for the home, it's shared throughout the building. I once had a lovely chat with my landlord about it - it comes on for the entire building when the outside temperature drops below 18C.
Actually, temperature control is relatively easy - I could simply replace my 7 thermostats with wifi controlled ones and even ones that power themselves using thermal difference. But it's still very early days, and doesn't solve my other, very Swiss problem: humidity.
Swiss buildings are, to quote a colleage, "hermetically sealed" - the Swiss are not at home to Mr Draft; double glazing and excellent seals all lead to very strict building rules governing how often you must open your windows to air the moisture (3 times a day, 5 minutes each - page 11 of this PDF, if you're interested). A dehumidifier would do the trick in eliminating moisture but there are three problems; first, simple cost, both in purchase cost (200USD) and running cost. Second, "environmental friendliness" - though my electricity is 100% from renewable sources (assuming I understood the leaflet about the options). Third, a Swiss problem: my building rules say I must open the windows; a dehumidifier is not opening the windows.
So, somehow, I must open my windows at the appropriate time. It could be any other physical problem: another bugbear of mine is that my washing machine has no timer. This is important: I can only run the washer 8am - 8pm (more Swiss building rules). The washing machine has no timer and, worse still, the 'start' button only registers a pushing of the button, not that the button is pushed (so you can't lean a chair against it and turn on the power).
Physical interfaces and solutions to existing infrastructure will be a time-consuming and adoption-limiting component of the IoT.
3. Internationalisation Issues
So Nest are our multi-billion dollar IoT success example. But rewind to my Swiss heating situation; how would Nest help me there? There's no centralised area for heating in most Swiss buildings it is, in effect, highly decentralised and integrated direct into the heaters themselves. Next up - most Swiss do not own their own homes so physical changes to the residence (like changing the heater thermostats for shiny wifi ones) is potentially off the table unless the landlord is willing (and knowing Switzerland, you'll have a fight because, hey, you should probably open the windows).
In fact, Nest themselves already face this problem: in their announcement of Nest for the UK they state that they had to redesign the Nest because in the UK "there's a different problem to be solved". I can't imagine the number of different problems for each country and their own individual implementation of heating.
And then there's regulatory issues: staying with the UK, to have any more "major" electrical wiring done (i.e. more than wiring a plug socket) must be done by a "registered competent person" the reason being: electricity = danger.
All of this says to me that we'll most likely to see local companies and entrepeneurs bringing IoT physical interfaces and regulatory handling schemes. But the big money will most likely be in the orchestration (and, not mentioned, adaptation) - so I guess Nest was probably a good buy for Google.
I complained a lot about Switzerland but it is beautiful, efficient, polite, clean and has one of the best qualities of life in the World. Saying that, it truly is ... different. So go here, here and here for some more fun things about Switzerland (all true to a certain extent). Me, I'm leaving. It's a little too quiet, and not just because I can't run my washing machine on a Sunday.