Kate's Comment

Thoughts on British ICT, energy & environment, cloud computing and security from Memset's MD

The Next Revolution: Internet of Things

Over Christmas I have been pondering on the question of what the next big thing in technology will be, specifically in 2012. That question is perhaps especially poignant since we recently we lost one of our generation’s great innovators, Steve Jobs.

When I recently took delivery of my magic mouse I was struck by how aptly it was named. If it were presented to someone only a few decades ago – a smooth pebble-like object which could be used to interact with a computer by moving it or merely brushing one’s fingers across its surface – might it not have appeared magical? Mr. Jobs’ elegant creations brought to life Arthur C Clarke’s maxim that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Adding to this, the world economy continues to stutter, teetering on the brink of another global recession fuelled this time by not the banks defaulting, but the prospect of entire governments being declared bankrupt. Is this really the time for fancy new technologies?

3D printing

Perhaps the most obvious transformational technology to pick as the one to watch would be 3D printing. It is hard to understate the likely impact of “printers” able to create almost any device object as common as personal computers are today, but we are quite a way from that point. At present they are relatively crude, able only to print a small range of types of plastic and quite expensive.

An interesting area to watch is the open source RepRap, which can be used to make some of the parts for additional copies of itself. The implications of machines that are able to make anything, including copies of themselves, are profound indeed, but I am not convinced that 2012 will be the year of 3D printers and fully automated manufacturing.

The Internet of Things into life

But no, I think the next big revolution will be something called the Internet of Things. So what is it? In this context I’m talking about all the Internet Protocol (IP) connected devices that litter our lives. Why does this matter? Well mainly because there are a lot of them – estimates of between 50 billion and 1 trillion by 2020 are out there. You might be thinking, “Nah, I only have a couple of computers, what are they on about?”. Well, I counted up all the IP devices in my home recently and got a surprise:

  • 1 x Mac mini (our media computer – I recently cancelled Sky and we stream all TV)
  • 1 x Cable modem with integrated Wireless Access Point
  • 1 x ReadyNAS file server (for backups and storing large files such as movies)
  • 1 x X-box
  • 1 x Wii
  • 2 x Mac Air Laptops
  • 2 x HTC Desire Android smart phones
  • 1 x Amazon Kindle
  • 5 x IP CCTV security cameras
  • 1 x CCTV system head unit
  • 1 x Burgular alarm system
  • 2 x Televisions
  • 1 x Hi-fi amplifier

A total of twenty IP-connected devices! Now, I’m a well-off technologist so you could argue that I have more devices than most and that most people would not connect all their devices (like the TVs – all mine do is auto-update their firmware at present). However, first that list is for two people (my girlfriend and I) and second we are actually fairly minimalist with our technology and tend to have as few devices as possible; we have one laptop and phone each, only one pad device (the Kindle) between us, and a couple of other computers and consoles. Anyway, call it in round numbers 10 IP-connected devices each and assume there are 1bn people like us in the developed world and you get 10 billion devices in the West. Suddenly 50 billion in 8 years seems very likely, in fact if anything a bit low!

More addresses!

Until recently the potential for this explosion was also hampered by the fact that we were running out of IP addresses. IP addresses are codes like “78.31.108.54″ that are used to address machines on the Internet – that one happens to be my personal virtual machine. The old system is called IPv4 and each of the four parts of the code could be a maximum of 255, so the total possible addresses was about 256^4, 2^32, or about 4 billion (4 * 10^9). Some devices are inside home or office networks so don’t have an Internet address themselves, but if they could it would potentially accelerate the potential of the Internet of Things even more.

Recently new version of IP addressing, IPv6, has been rolled out which gives us vastly more – a mind-boggling 2^128 possible addresses, or about 3.4 * 10^38. As described in a lovely XKCD cartoon, it is unlikely that human society in anything resembling our current state will ever consume that many addresses, but I digress!

The peoples’ revolutions

For something to be a revolution you need a bit more than device proliferation though. Let’s take a step back and look at the last couple of decades and the other recent revolutions. I would like to contend that since the headline technology revolutions of my lifetime (personal computing and personal network connectivity) there have been two further major revolutions and that both of them have been community-driven, albeit reliant on the first two revolutions. As an aside, that is often the way of innovation, as in the words of W. Brian Arthur:

“Novel technologies form from combinations of existing ones, and in turn they become potential components for the construction of further technologies.”

The third technology revolution of my lifetime, and the first driven more by people than by institutions, was the World Wide Web, which grew organically without any central authority and whose content was created by people everywhere, especially in the beginning. I remember being at university and sitting in a tiny bedroom next to my room mate in the wee small hours while we both built our personal Web sites, borrowing bits from others who had gone before. Today the content is being generated by even more people now that the technical knowledge requirements have been reduced with systems like blogging and wikis.

The fourth revolution has been in software development communities. I’m cheating a bit and rolling two revolutions into one; first the open source software movement – generally free community-sourced and managed applications; second the accessible software development ecosystems that have been created for smart phones by companies like Apple and Google realising the awesome power of enabling the community to get creative with their platform. There are further examples as well, such as the popular Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP (or Python, Perl etc) “stack” which millions of bedroom hackers and professional programmers alike use to rapidly develop their own Web applications; a free development platform created by the open source community.

The benefits of accessible app development platforms is fairly obvious (just look at all the things your smart phone can do), but amazingly some hard-headed business people are still in denial about open source software despite it being responsible for many systems that are now integral to our daily lives. The Linux operating system, to pick but one example, has proven to be massively reliable – more so on our experience than closed source Windows by a long way – and is completely free. Open source is an amazing example of functional communism at work. I’m a particular fan since I have built my entire business on open source technologies and thanks to them I’m able to undercut all my competitors and still make a healthy profit. Everyone wins!

You might be asking, “What about smart phones or social media? Are they not revolutions?”. Back in 2000 I had a Palm Pilot that could do quite a few smart phone type functions and Moore’s law has always predicted that we would have powerful computers in our pockets. Ubiquitous network connectivity is also key to smart phones but that too is a long-term trend. What has made smart phones really work compared to my old Palm Pilot has been the people-power behind the app development. As for social media, again I see that as more an evolution of technology; as far back as 1997 I was using Internet Relay Chat (IRC), usenet news and online forums, all arguably social media. It is the Web that is the revolution, driven people finding cool new ways to use that technology – social media being just a prominent example.

The hackers’ revolution

I believe that the fifth major technology revolution of my time will be the Internet of Things and that like other recent revolutions it will be powered by a community, in this case the hacker community, their innovative drive empowered by cheap open source hardware platforms.

I’m not suggesting that hardware hacking is anything new, but what has changed is the addition of ubiquitous network connectivity into the mix along with some cheap and flexible platforms such as Nanode (an Arduino board with ethernet attached) and Raspberry PI, a Linux computer for $25. Especially exciting is the fact that those innovations are both British.

In my next post I will describe how I think hacking is making a come back, how it will rocket-boost the Internet of Things revolution and how I believe that together it could be a real boon to our faltering economy.

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