The Internet of Things is here, and expanding at a staggering rate. Many devices, existing and new, are being fitted with sensors that provide information used in their operation, increasing accuracy, efficiency and overall usefulness. We Get It. IoT Everywhere. But what about where all of this data goes?
First comes chaos
Having everything imaginable beaming data around wirelessly seems like it came out of nowhere, but in truth it’s been coming for quite a long time, beginning with high-end devices and systems that were the dominion of governments and large corporations. Advances in microprocessor technology and wide-area communications continue to push the cost of implementation and operation ever lower, to where everyday objects now have the ability to transmit data. To many, it looks like impending information overload, with no signs of anyone getting it under control. Chaos.
What we’re seeing with the IoT follows a familiar pattern. A technology starts to take hold and people grapple with how to best utilize it. Since it’s new and complex, only the most technically savvy are able to speak about it accurately, which leads to a lot of “because we can” ideas for how it will be employed. Not all of these are grounded in solving user needs or the creation of bona fide new market categories, so they don’t survive as the technology matures. During the chaotic phase, it’s rarely clear what form the mature phase of a technology will look like.
Next comes curation
It turns out that chaos has often led rapid technology adoption. In almost all cases, what becomes the de facto version of how a technology weaves itself into the fabric of the world is guided bycuration. Here are two examples of chaos evolving into curation:
Aviation. We’ve only had heavier-than-air flying machines for just over 100 years. A critical advance had to happen for air travel to become an almost mundane occurrence: air traffic control.
During World War II, aircraft technology advanced radically, leading to large metal airplanes with pressurized cabins and jet engines. Coupled with the paved runways built around the world to support military bombers, we now had the ability to carry a lot of people, fast, across and between continents. That was both awesome and scary since now two aircraft could close in on each other at a combined speed approaching over 1,000 mph.
Up to this point, outside of the relatively small zones around the airports themselves where the control towers could “see” the airplanes using radar, routing of aircraft was still mainly handled from inside the cockpit and via pilots talking to each other on radios. The answer was to introduce air traffic control (ATC). It moved the handling of traffic from the cockpits into a network of waypoints, stations and operators focused specifically on the safe and efficient routing of aircraft operating above certain altitudes. ATC’s curation made the skies fundamentally safe and allowed the world air travel industry to scale magnificently, for many decades.
Napster vs. iTunes. A recent example of chaos vs. curation surfaced when it appeared that peer-to-peer file sharing a la Napster would eat up the entertainment industry. Many prognosticated that without people paying for content it would become economically unfeasible for record labels and the like to generate new product. And it really did seem dire there, for a while.
Then something came along that moved digital entertainment into a new era: Apple introduced iTunes. To make it palatable to all parties, Apple brought out an end-to-end solution that curated the entire supply chain, handling content procurement, rights management, how users find content and how they consume it — from artist to ears in one cohesive system.
Obviously it not only functions extremely well, it set the standard and pace for how the entire professional entertainment industry was able to finally transition into the digital era. Video didn’t kill the radio star, and peer-to-peer, while still being used in enormous volume, didn’t kill the entertainment business.
These examples illustrate the key role that curation plays in driving industries to mature, versus the “chaotic” model of pure peer-to-peer handling.
Snapping it together
So now let’s apply this to the IoT. There is much discussion about your refrigerator talking to your coffee pot, and many ad hoc standards organizations formed around that notion. Doubtless these will be useful and important, but not universal. Given history, the far more likely mode will be some form of curation at both micro and macro levels.
It’s already happening, since many of the consumer IoT offerings center on, well, a center. You install a “brain” that all of the intelligent elements in your home connect with and through. It makes decisions and also has the primary connection with the cloud. The individual devices aren’t doing everything among and by themselves.
And in commercial, industrial and governmental areas, it’s fairly obvious that pure peer-to-peer device communications without any curation won’t cut it — something, or someone, needs to act as curator to ensure that things are handled well and properly, rules are applied and rights are respected. The Napster vs. iTunes example parallels this perfectly, and we are facing similar issues with the IoT.
With airplanes, peer-to-peer communications and handling modes coexist with curated ATC. If you jump in your Cessna and stay underneath and outside of the official air corridors, you can fly virtually unrestricted. But if you want to operate in the big corridors, you need to join ATC for your journey.
Doubtless with IoT it will be the same, a mix of peer-to-peer and curated hub-spoke handling of sensing and control data. The former will fit some of the use cases, mostly noncommercial or at minimum unrelated to something official and/or revenue-related, and for sensor traffic that needs to be graded, guided and dealt with in the worlds of rights and commerce, curation will be the preferred mode. It will be fascinating to see it all evolve, and many, many opportunities abound in participating.
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