Was the Internet just an accident?

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…