Patience, IoT Is the New “Electronic”
The “Internet of Things” or IoT is cool. I know this because everyone tells everyone else how cool it is. Ask anyone and they will give you their own definition of what IoT means and why it is cool. That’s proof we are using a buzzword or are in a hype-cycle.
Much is at stake to benefit from, contribute to, or even control this next, next-generation of computing. If a company benefitted from 300 million PCs a year, that’s quite cool. If another company benefitted from 1 billion smartphones a year, then that’s pretty cool.
You know what is really cool, benefitting from 75 billion devices. That certainly explains the enthusiasm for the catch phrase.
Missing out on this wave is uncool. Just take a look at the CNBC screen shot to the left. That’s what we talked about in the Digital Innovation class at HBS last week and what motivated this post.
In an effort to quantify the opportunity, claim leadership, or just be included amongst those who “get it” we are all collectively missing the fact that we really don’t know how this will play out in any micro sense. It is safe to say everything will be connected to the internet. That’s about it. As Benedict Evans says, counting connected devices is a lot like counting how many electric motors are in your home. In the first days this was cool. Today, that seems silly. Benedict’s excellent post also goes into details asking many good questions about what being connected might mean and here I enhance our in-class discussion.
One way to view the history of “devices” is through two generations in the 20th century. For the first 50 years we had “analog motor” devices that replaced manual mechanical devices. This was the age of convenience brought by motors of all kinds from giant gas motors that produced electricity to tiny DC motors that powered household gadgets and everything in between. People very quickly learned the benefits of using motors to enhance manual effort. Though if you don’t think it was a generational shift, consider the reactions to the first labor saving home appliances (see Disney’s Carousel of Progress).
The next 50 years was about “digital electronics” which began with the diode, then the transistor, and then the microprocessor. What is amazing about this transition is how many decades past before the full transformation took place. Early on electronics replaced analog variants. Often these were viewed as luxuries at best, or inferior “gadgets” at worse. I recall my father debating with a car dealer the merits of “electronic fuel injection”. Many of us reading this certainly recall (or still believe) the debate over the quality of digital music relative to analog LP and cassette. Interestingly, the benefit we all experience today of size, weight, power consumption, portability, and more took years to gain acceptance. We used to think about “repairing” a VCR and how awful it was that you could not repair a DVD player. Go figure. The key innovation insight is that the benefits of electronics took decades to play out and were not readily apparent to all at the start.
We find ourselves at the start of a generation of invention where everything is connected. We are at the early stages where we are connecting things that we can connect, just like we added motors to replace the human turning the crank on a knitting loom. Some inventions have the magic of the portable radio—freedom and portability. Some seem as gimmicky as that blender.
Here are a few things we all know and love today that have already been transformed by “first generation” connectivity:
For the next few years, thousands of innovators will embark on the idea maze (Chris Dixon summarizes Balaji Srinivasan’s lecture). This is not just about product-market fit, but about much more basic questions. Every generational change in technology introduces a phase of crazy inventing, and that is where we are today with IoT.
This means that for the next couple of years most every product or invention, at first glance, might seem super cool (to some) and crazy to most everyone else. Then after a little use or analysis, more sober minds will prevail. The journey through the idea maze and engineering realities will continue.
This also means that every “thing” introduced will be met with skepticism of the broader, less tech-enthused, market (like our diverse classroom). Every introduction will seem more expensive, more complex, more superfluous than what is currently in use. In fact it is likely that even the ancillary benefits of being connected will be lost on most everyone.
That almost reads like the definition of innovator’s dilemma. Nothing sums this up more than how people talk about smart “watches”, connected thermostats, or robots. One either immediately sees the utility of strapping to your wrist a sub-optimal smartphone you have to charge midday or you ask why you can’t just look at your phone’s lock screen for the time. One looks at Nest thermostat and asks why paying 10X for the luxury of having a professional HVAC installer get stumped or having to “train” something you set and forget is such a good idea.
We find ourselves in the midst of a generational change in the technology base upon which everything is built. It used to be that owning an “electric” or “electronic” thing sounded modern and cool, well because they were so unique. That’s why adding “connected” or “smart” to a product is going to sound about as silly as saying “transistor radio” or “electronic oven”.
Every thing will be connected. The thing is we, collectively, have neither mastered connecting a thing without some downside (cost, weight, complexity) nor even figured out what we would do when something is connected. What are the equivalents of size, weight, reliability, ease of manufacturing, and more when it comes to connectivity? Today we do the “obvious” such as use the cloud for remote relay, access, storage. We write an app to control something over WiFi rather than build in a physical user interface. We collect and analyze data to inform usage or future products. There is more to come. How will devices be connected to each other? How will third parties improve the usage of things and just make them better? Where do we put the “smarts” in a thing when we have thousands of things? How might we find we are safer, healthier, faster, and even just happier?
We just don’t know yet. What we do know is that a lot of entrepreneurs and innovators across companies are going to try things out and incrementally get us to a new connected world, which in a few years will just be the world.
The Internet of Things is not about the things or even the platform the same way we thought about motors or microprocessors. The big winners in IoT will be thinking about an entirely different future, not just connecting to things we already use today in ways we already use them.