The ‘Internet of Things’ needs to empower people, not machines

internet network sensors physical webBusiness predictions from more than a decade ago are not likely to come true as originally envisioned, and that’s turning out to be the case with the so-called “Internet of Things.”

By his own account, Kevin Ashton coined the term “Internet of Things” in a presentation to Proctor & Gamble in 1999. “We need to empower computers with their own means of gathering information,” he explained. “So they can see, hear and smell the world for themselves, in all its random glory.”

With all respect to Kevin, this is why the “Internet of Things” phrase bothers me; it’s obsessed with the notion of empowering machines — instead of people.

In our book Smart Customers, Stupid Companies, Michael Hinshaw and I used the term “Physical Web” to describe what happens when the real world becomes linked up like the Web is today. The Physical Web will connect people, ideas, events and things.

To help you grasp the difference, I reached out to Rick Bullotta, co-founder of ThingWorx. He, too, dislikes terms like Internet of Things and M2M (machine to machine). His firm has built an application development platform that helps companies connect devices and people faster and hopefully for less money.

“The Internet of Things, ” says Rick, “Sprung up around the notion that everything will have a smart tag, and that you will therefore be able to follow it around with some sort of tracking. People basically had three business models in mind. There was telematics stuff, like ‘where’s my truck?’ There was remote monitoring, like tell me when the tank on my farm is empty. And there were remote servicing ideas, like hooking up an expensive MRI machine to a service center.”

thingworx data physical web interactionBut as useful as many of these ideas can be, they don’t really scratch the surface of what’s possible.

“When the tsunami hit Fukushima,” explains Rick, “Citizens in Japan were starved for information on the status of leaks, and the amount of radiation that had been released. Other people and groups stepped into to share radiation data that the government failed to provide.”

Many, if not most, new businesses spring up to solve a problem. To use a simple example: people like hamburgers + hamburgers cost too much = McDonalds!

But Rick says that if you ask a customer what her problems are, she most likely will follow an innate human impulse to limit her responses to what she thinks is possible. This is why no one in in 1995 asked for an iPhone, and why no one today is asking for a $5-a-month home security service: People don’t believe it is possible.

If you want to start a company or service that is mind-boggling in its potential growth and profitability, you will have to expand significantly your notions of what’s possible. (That, by the way, is the main reason I write this column.)

“Do you think anyone envisioned the kind of apps people would come up with when they added sensors to smartphones?” Rick asked.

No way. Human ingenuity is remarkable, especially when you free it from the constraints of working in a large company with all sorts of bureaucratic rules.

How to think about the Physical Web

To simplify things a bit, across the Physical Web you’ll find ideas and events, plus:

1. People

2. Systems (mainly computer hardware and software)

3. Devices (meaning everything from sensors to your refrigerator)

Rick says that if you want to broaden your thinking, pick any two and consider what each can and can’t do.

People and devices, for example, are each capable of sensing that something happened or changed. But neither can do the sort of brute force calculating that enables Google to gather 10,000 searches for the term “earthquake” in the five minutes following a tremor.

Systems and devices make a potent combination, in that they can free people from many tasks that require repetition or concentration. For example, a device can check your basement floor every minute for the presence of water, and combine with a system to alert you and others you have named. But in the end, this only matters if the pair solves problems that matter to people.

To Rick’s formula, I’d add one word: less.

How can you combine people, systems and devices to give customers less of the stuff that drives them crazy? Most want to spend less time, less money and less effort on annoyances.

computer connected physical web sensors networkInstead of expecting that a customer will wait on hold for a customer agent to pick up, you could enable People to provide a number at which a System can have the agent call them back when a Device notices the agent is free.

There are billions of other possibilities, once you embrace the idea that the Physical Web will link people, devices and systems — plus ideas and events and all the other facets of human activity.

Rick is eager for innovators to solve real human problems, instead of simply marketing cool new gadgets. Billions of people can’t find clean water. They don’t have affordable ways to monitor and improve their health. They don’t know how to lower their energy costs, or to keep their children or elderly relatives safe.

Broaden your thinking. Don’t be limited by what you think is possible. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the opportunity is to link things to other things.

Look out your window and think: When I click on that (a tree, mailbox, sign or product)… I want this (it becomes mine, it answers my question, it tells me about itself, it gets saved to my file) to happen.

Bruce Kasanoff is a speaker, author and innovation strategist who tracks sensor-driven innovation at Sense of the Future. Kasanoff and co-author Michael Hinshaw teamed up to explore more of the opportunities unearthed by disruptive forces in Smart Customers, Stupid Companies.

[Image credit: digital technology concept: fotographic1980/Shutterstock; ThingWorx; Social network communication: VLADGRIN/Shutterstock]

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