December 9, 2013
This year marked the 23rd anniversary of two clever guys -- John Romkey and Simon Hackett -- hooking up a toaster to the Internet. The device was connected by TCP/IP and was controlled with the Simple Network Management Protocol. And even though it had only one control (power on/off), it was a huge hit at the Interop networking conference that year. Later a robotic arm was added, which picked up a slice of bread and dropped it into the toaster -- no human interaction needed.
Fast forward and today we have no shortage of things connected to the Internet (more than 10 billion things, according to Cisco), from things we wear (watches and footwear) to the cars we drive. Heck, we're even getting to the point where living "things" are connected -- such as self-watering plants. Welcome to the wonderful Internet of Everything.
[ How connected will future vehicles be? Read 5 Ways Big Data Can Improve Your Car. ]
But before we get carried away with the technology and possibilities, take note. Like the Internet toaster circa 1990, just moving the products your business makes online doesn't necessarily result in commercial success. And unlike that toaster, it's actually no longer a thorny technical challenge or even that costly.
Today the cost of all the wizardry (temperature, motion and image sensors, WiFi, and GPS) is falling dramatically. This, together with the adoption of newer technologies and common standards in areas such as Near Field Communication, telematics, and machine-to-machine communications (M2M), makes just about anything a connected thing. So if getting things connected is just table stakes, what are the factors that actually guarantee success? They might not be what you think, but each has huge implications for business and IT pros. Here's my quick take.
Build connected intelligence: What's really exciting is when connected products build a whole new value proposition because of their ability to gain intelligence from things and events happening around them. Take the humble home temperature thermostat. It has been around for decades, and the technology isn't particularly earth shattering. But what if the thermostat could self-regulate based on household activity or adjust according to weather patterns? And what if the thermostat were connected to cloud-based analytics systems to become part of an energy use ecosystem, advising the homeowner on how to reduce energy consumption? Now the humble thermostat would no longer be a device. It would be something far more valuable: a customer experience.
Find the cool factor: Building connectedness and intelligence into your devices will be futile if you ignore another critical element: design. For example, the smarts factor in a home thermostat is pretty much standard and something we take for granted. It no longer differentiates. But combine intelligence with something that looks cool, and the value proposition increases. Take a look at some of the newer smart products -- yes, even thermostats, which have morphed from the clunky-looking, hard-to-program products of yesteryear into something cool and desirable.
But what does this have to do with IT? Everything. Developing cool, innovative products will require nimble management of the technologies and processes -- such as rapid software and mobile app development, agile project management, social media management, and cloud computing -- that are needed to support design, manufacturing, and marketing.
Enrich products with services: Really smart products build an ecosystem of services around them. They're so connected that external innovators want to connect, too, quickly meshing their own innovation into the product. For example, what might have started off as the humble bathroom scale suddenly becomes the central element in a person's health regime. It's intelligently connected to myriad third-party mobile apps and services, or even your health insurance provider. For IT, this switch in thinking presents some challenges. First, you must ensure the integrated software systems are not encumbered with elements that hurt the user experience (like a badly designed mobile app mimicking a website or poor security). Second, you must develop easy-to-use APIs and robust architectures and provide good old-fashioned support to your networks.
In the Internet of Everything, there is a cautionary note. Sometimes building intelligence into products can be counterproductive. Our toaster, for example, ultimately exists to make toast. But if we over-engineer with too much intelligence, we risk building products that are so annoying that our customers won't want to use them. This idea is hilariously illustrated in the BBC UK sci-fi comedy show Red Dwarf.
Finally, always remember the fight club rules of disruptive technology, especially when communicating with the business side on how innovations can expand markets and drive revenue. After all, at the end of the day, you'll be doing the toasting.
IT groups need data analytics software that's visual and accessible. Vendors are getting the message. Also in the State Of Analytics issue of InformationWeek: SAP CEO envisions a younger, greener, cloudier company (free registration required).
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