Over the last year, my writing and speaking has focused on a fairly straight forward thesis:

  1. Cheap computation/networking will make nearly any device ‘smart’
  2. There will be lots of these things
  3. Using ‘an app’ to control each one (what we currently do) just won’t scale
  4. Smart phones will be joined by smart TVs, smart glasses, and smart tabletops
  5. All the ‘smart devices’ will want to play with all the ‘smart displays’
  6. We need to make this happen through open source solutions

I’ve given this talk to thousands of people and it’s so gratifying to get such enthusiastic endorsement. But whenever it comes down to concrete next steps someone almost always says “you really need to sketch out how a company can actually make money doing this”. The intent is good; they are clearly trying to be supportive, but this is exactly the wrong approach.

The world is littered with ‘service discovery’ systems that have come and gone over the years. For the most part, they were all proprietary systems. We’re talking about building a network of nearly everything on the frigg’n planet. Who in their right mind wants to hand off that kind of power to a single company? It is antithetical to the entire history of the internet.

And that, at its core, is what is so frustrating: people have forgotten how the internet was made. It wasn’t built by a company trying to get rich quick. It fact, it wasn’t built with any business goal in mind at all. It was built to create a highway of connectedness that morphed and grew over time into something that allows all sorts of companies to make money. Your city’s roads and streets don’t make money but they sure make it easier for FedEx to do so.

Our brains have collectively gone startup-crazy, seeing the world through stock option colored glasses, assuming that if there is no money, there is clearly no value. This is madness. I’m so desperately worried that the internet will turn out to be a happy accident. This is going to sound a bit trite but the “internet of things” has the word ‘internet’ in it! When are we going to start building it with that word in mind? There are several excellent internet bill of rights already floating around, focusing on the rights we, as citizens of the world, have in relation to this technology. However, we also need need one from the devices’ point of view. Any smart device has the right:

  1. To have access to the internet
  2. To be discoverable by anyone or anything nearby (without necessarily being on their subnet)
  3. To be able to broadcast information on what it does
  4. To offer up a web page to do whatever the hell it wants to do
  5. To offer up a RESTful interface of actions that it is capable of doing
  6. To optionally require a secure connection/login

Is this a company? Not at all. It’s not even a product. I’m sure others will point out what it’s obviously missing. But let’s start simple and work our way up: build an open and discoverable system that looks, and actually is, nearly identical to the internet that brought us here.

Much like TCP, this bill of rights doesn’t have to be tied down to a particular transport. My guess is that wifi direct is going to very helpful but it should just as equally work over ethernet and Bluetooth. We just need to agree as a group that any standard must have these core open principles for the internet of things to take off. I’m doing what I can to push this meme along but just like the internet, this isn’t something a single person can do. We all have to appreciate how we need a deep, open solution to solve this problem. If we don’t understand, demand even, that hardware devices need to be just as discoverable an open as web servers are today, we’ll never see the internet of things come to pass.

However, it’s clear that making that first step is the hard part. How do we get started? Rome wasn’t built in a day. I’m exploring how to build this over Wifi Direct using Arduino. I’d love to hear what else others are working on. Please post in the comments other folks that are working on this. It takes a village…

15 thoughts on “Was the Internet just an accident?

  1. Wholeheartedly agree, but it extends well beyond the internet of things. I can think of shared public school infrastructure and healthcare as two segments of the economy which need their own public substrate, but where no company dares to or is interested enough to build one.

    Foundations and non-profits can and do play an important role, but these things are fundamentally hard because of politics and industry in-fighting. Governments are good, but they are so cash-strapped and election-driven as to render them completely paralyzed.

    I’ve been on the internet of things side as a product manager of a wireless networking stack for embedded devices, and I am now in the educational technology space doing pretty much the same thing. The obstacles for common standards are enormous, and the established players are well-cemented in their respective markets.

    It continues to be an uphill battle.

  2. While at first it seems like a good idea, the Internet of thing needs to be an intranet of things. There are significant privacy issues if information from a persons devices are available to everybody. Power usage can indicate whether a property is occupied. An empty fridge probably indicates a long absence, heavy stocking and consumption could indicate the presence of guests etc.
    Protecting privacy, and securing access to data and control is a problem that requires solving, and more important that enabling the networking of smart devices.

    • I completely agree, which is why one of my ‘rights’ was security. But there is a balance. In a rush to be secure, many products make this nearly impossible to use. I realize this is a tradeoff, I just want to make sure we *design* security and not just slap it on. You’re not saying this of course, I’m just pointing out that 99% of the time, security is very poorly done.

      • The combination of 4g and RFID tags could simply bypass any customer control on collection and use of data. iven the propensity of companies and governments to collect all the data that they can get hold of, the risk is that the Internet of things becomes a reality that the private individual has no control over.
        Given the way that companies and governments are currently behaving, I think there is a going to be a major political battle to prevent a complete erosion of individual privacy.
        The problem is not in building an Internet of things, but in preventing the abuse of technology as a means of implementing the big brother state.

        • The funny thing about what you’re saying is both that its technically plausible & likely, and that it’s already happened and here.

          Your purchasing, traveling, surfing, sleeping, eating and thinking behavior are already highly documented and accessible & manipulatable by those who might control you “big brother” style.

          I say it’s “funny” because while the idea of a future “big brother” always sounds obviously distasteful, the current “big brother” often just gets overlooked as inconsequential and not too bad.

  3. Thank you, Scott, for the interesting perspective. Especially valuable are your thesis summary, and your ambient device bill of rights. Setting aside for the moment the huge questions raised by other commenters about security and privacy, what do you think about a Firefox, or at worst an Android, for the IoT? Sure, FF is not that great a browser, but it has allowed the concept of what a browser is and can be to be evolved by a global community of designers and tinkerers. A few years of that type of collaboration could do a lot to help us understand how to build a global system of interconnectivity.

  4. Sorry for the late reply. I think that right now we need to experiement and find patterns of interactions that work. I really don’t mind if it is Android or FF, as long as we make progress and find things that work. I feel that both platforms are a good start.

    However, it’s not the platform as much as the middleware that is critical. How would either one find smart devices? That to me, is the driving question, and what I spend most of my talks exploring.

    • Scott, I’m so very curious about your perspective on Apple’s AirPlay as it may or may no relate to the future of the Internet of things as you see it? Clearly it is not an open standard, but I can’t help but observe it falls exactly inline with ‘Discover – Use – Forget’. For a new emerging world of wireless A/V connectivity it operates very seamlessly. As an example, a user does not have to understand the difference between how AirPlay uses Bluetooth when they sit in their car vs. Wi-Fi when they are in their home. Furthermore, AirPlay is now generally ‘standard’ across all apps on iOS, so the app itself is not how the user engages the Internet of things, such as compatible speakers or displays. It’s the AirPlay feature that permits a discover, use, forget approach within any particular app a user engages and wishes to ‘amplify’ wether audio or video or both.

      Would you care to share any thoughts AirPlay?

      • Airplay is a very clever technology, there is a lot to like about it. As you point out, working across wifi, ethernet and bluetooth is pretty compelling.

        But as you point out, it’s also dedicated not only to Apple devices, but also primarily to audio/video. That is a huge limitation of we desire to have a true internet of many things that we want to work with. So I’m not against Airplay as an implementation, just about it’s viability as a platform.

        There is one more nit I have, we had an Airplay device at work but it could only connect to our public wifi and i was usually connected to our private one. I kept expecting my airplay device, which I was right in front of, to just show up and it never did. This is an example of how wifi isn’t always the best way forward. It’s one reason why I’m so in favor of wifi direct (or bluetooth 4) as both of these technologies let you discover them independent of the network you are currently connected to.

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