What is the Internet of Things?
How the IoT is revolutionizing not just consumer goods and gadgets, but manufacturing, design, engineering, medicine, government, business models, and the way we live our lives.
How the IoT is revolutionizing not just consumer goods and gadgets, but manufacturing, design, engineering, medicine, government, business models, and the way we live our lives.
At our first Solid conference in 2014,
we started a wide-ranging discussion about the
“intersection between software and the physical world.” A year later, this discussion
is continuing, with even more energy and passion than before. You
can hardly read a newspaper (if you still read newspapers) without
seeing something about the “Internet of Things” and the rise of the hardware startup.
But what does the intersection between software and hardware mean?
Early in 2013, we sat around a table in Sebastopol to survey some
interesting trends in technology. There were many: robotics, sensor
networks, the Industrial Internet, the
professionalization of the Maker movement, hardware-oriented startups.
It was a confusing picture, until we realized that these weren’t
separate trends. They’re all more alike than different—they are all the
visible result of the same underlying forces. Startups like FitBit and
Withings were taking familiar old devices, like pedometers and bathroom
scales, and making them intelligent by adding computer power and network
connections. At the other end of the industrial scale, GE was doing the
same thing to jet engines and locomotives. Our homes are increasingly
the domain of smart robots, including Roombas and 3D printers, and we’ve
started looking forward to self-driving cars and personal autonomous
drones. Every interesting new product has a network connection—be it
WiFi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, or even a basic form of piggybacking through a
USB connection to a PC. Everything has a sensor, and devices as
dissimilar as an iPhone and a thermostat are stuffed with them. We spent 30
or more years moving from atoms to bits; now it feels like we’re pushing
the bits back into the atoms. And we realized that the intersection of
these trends—the conjunction of hardware, software, networking, data,
and intelligence—was the real “news,” far more important than any
individual trend. The Internet of Things: that’s what we’ve been
working on all these years. It’s finally happening.
We’ve seen software transformed over the last decade by a handful of
truly revolutionary developments: pervasive networking that can make the
Internet a central part of any piece of software; APIs that make systems
available to each other as abstracted modules; clouds like Amazon Web
Services that dramatically reduce the capital needed to start a new
software venture; open source projects that make expertise available to
anyone; selling services rather than products.
We now see the same
developments coming to the physical world. As
Tunguz has said, the potential of the Internet of Things isn’t just
“linking millions of devices,” any more than the potential of Google
or Amazon was building massive IT infrastructure.
The IoT is about “transforming business models” and
“enabling companies to sell products in entirely new and better ways.”
Infrastructural services reduce capital requirements
Amazon Web Services
Open source improves access to expertise
Thingiverse; Arduino; Robot Operating System
APIs let developers build on platforms
Smart Things; IFTTT
Data enables optimization
Taleris (airline management)
Direct-to-consumer retail channels
Apple App Store
ShopLocket; Quirky; Etsy
Products sold as services
Hobbyists become entrepreneurs
MakerBot emerges from NYC Resistor
Software intelligence decreases need for interaction
Nest thermostat; Google driverless car
Hardware that has software in it isn’t the least bit new. TVs and cars
have had software-driven components since the 1980s, if not earlier.
Chrysler introduced a computerized
system back in 1971. Microwave
ovens, dishwashers, probably even those
beds that let you adjust the position of the mattress and many other
settings: these all have hefty doses of microprocessors and software. So
what’s new? Didn’t software and hardware converge a long time ago?
The hardware renaissance of the last few years entails more than just
embedding CPUs into appliances. It’s built on ubiquitous networking,
which changes the game radically. Devices with embedded computers become
much more powerful when they’re connected to a network. Now we have
networked televisions, networked loudspeakers that receive MP3s from a
server, and networked devices that let us find our lost keys—and we call
that the “Internet of Things”
or the “Internet of Everything” or the
“Industrial Internet,” or
depending on which vendor’s language you like.
The functionality of new hardware depends on both modest, efficient
local computing as well as powerful cloud computing. A fitness
tracker, for instance, can carry out some functionality, like basic
data cleaning and tabulation, on local hardware, but it depends on
sophisticated machine-learning algorithms on an ever-improving cloud
service to offer prescription and insight.
The Internet of Things
crossed our radar back in 2001, at O’Reilly’s
first Foo Camp. It was an interesting idea: we wondered what would be
possible if we could assign an IP address to every physical object. Back
then, we were skeptical: who cares? Why would I want my shoes to have an
IP address? That question is still useful, but the answers we’re getting
now are much different. In 2001, networked shoes sounded like gratuitous
geekery, but in 2015, in the context of the
Quantified Self, network-enabled shoes that
log your every step make complete sense. At the same time, the
conversation has moved beyond easy-to-lampoon examples like connected
refrigerators and has come to include important industrial and
commercial applications for connected devices: jet engines, power
plants, cars. In this context, the Internet of Things promises to make
the world dramatically more efficient, safer, and more accessible.
And while network-enabled refrigerators remain examples of techno-geek overreach, home automation is
a hotbed of useful innovation.
Keen Home is a New
York-based startup whose first product is a network-enabled home heating
vent. The company’s founder, Will McLeod, believes that the most important
devices to automate are the most boring ones, the devices that do
something important (like control your home’s heating and air
conditioning), but that you never bother to touch. We’ve also seen smart
ceiling fans. Will the Internet
of Things give us more comfortable homes because our vents and fans talk to
our thermostats? Yes.
Networking is hardly a new technology. Some industrial controls and
building systems have had various kinds of network connectivity since
the mainframe era, and local
networks inside passenger cars have been commonplace since the 1980s.
Remote supervisory control of utility assets has been a
basic safety feature for decades.
What makes networking in 2015 different is 20 or 30 years of
Internet history: we understand how to build standard protocols, from
the lowest layer of the hardware up through the applications themselves.
We understand how to make devices from different manufacturers
This ubiquitous connectivity is meeting the era of data. Since working
with large quantities of data became dramatically cheaper and easier a
few years ago, everything that touches software has become instrumented
and optimized. Finance, advertising, retail, logistics, academia, and
practically every other discipline has sought to measure, model, and
tweak its way to efficiency. Software can ingest data from lots of
inputs, interpret it, and then issue commands in real time.
That intelligence is coming to the physical world now. Software in the
cloud, operating above the level of a single machine, can correspond
with millions of physical devices—retrieving data from them,
interpreting that data in a global context, and controlling them in real time. The result is a fluid system of hardware and software.
Now let’s add something else to the mix: the “new
manufacturing.” In the past few years, we’ve seen major changes in how
manufacturing works: from the earliest prototyping stage through the largest mass-market production runs, 3D printers, CNC machine tools, design software, and new supply chain models are transforming the way that companies create and build hardware.
Many companies provide manufacturing
services that can be used (with care) by the smallest of
startups; and hardware startup incubators like
make connections between local entrepreneurs and these manufacturing
Small-scale CNC technologies make low-cost prototyping
possible, and in the future, may bring manufacturing into the home.
Like software, hardware must be carefully designed, developed, and
deployed—but we call deployment manufacturing. Software and hardware are
merging into a single fluid discipline, with a single development
process that encompasses both software and hardware. Few people need deep,
low-level understanding of every module (just as few people need deep,
low-level understanding of every software technology), but many people
will soon need some integrated understanding of both hardware and
As we set out to define a program that encompasses the fusion of
hardware and software, we recognized eight key concepts that are present
in just about every interesting hardware project, from mobile
accessories to airliners.
The new manufacturing lets the Internet of Things go viral. It’s all
about reducing the friction of getting a product to market, and it’s
analogous to using Amazon Web Services to launch new software at very
low up-front cost. It enables entrepreneurs to prototype a product and
bring it to market without investing tens of millions of dollars; all
you really need is a successful Kickstarter or
IndieGoGo campaign, and there have been many.
We fundamentally don’t believe that the world of smart, interconnected
devices will be dominated by the entrenched industrial giants. Instead,
it will be driven by network effects from widely distributed players.
Taking the friction out of manufacturing disrupts the economies of
scale. Just as the Web allows musicians to create and market their own
music, to the dismay of the entertainment industry, the new
manufacturing allows innovators to create and market their own physical
products. You don’t have to be Sony or Samsung to bring a product to
Small companies taking advantage of low-cost design, prototyping, and
manufacturing can afford to be innovative. They aren’t limited to
products that make sense to the large industrials. What can we do if
we’re able take the cost of a hardware startup down to $500,000, and the
cost of a prototype down to $5,000? What if we can cut product
development time down to
four months instead of four years?
There’s a qualitative change in what you can do that mirrors the kinds of changes we’ve seen as software has become a universally-available tool.
You can take risks; you can be experimental. This is a new kind of
creativity, and it’s worth looking at some of our favorite IoT poster
children to think about how it works.
We’ve been fascinated by
the Tile “lost and found” device. If you
frequently lose your keys, you can buy a Tile tag for your keychain.
It’s roughly an inch square and contains a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
radio that allows an app on your phone to locate your keys when you lose
them. Its battery is built in; when it runs out (over a year), you
recycle the old one.
Tracing back the origins of Tile, we see a remarkably fast spin up.
According to TechCrunch, Tile
initially received $200,000 of angel funding. The product itself could
easily have been prototyped with a couple of prebuilt modules with an
enclosure made on a 3D printer. When the prototype was ready, Tile
launched a SelfStarter
campaign to raise $20,000
for the initial production run. It ended up raising over $2 million,
which confirmed that the company was on the trail of something hot:
crowdfunding doubles as market research, with the added benefit that it
pays you. Jabil,
a specialty manufacturer based in
the US, is building the device; Tile doesn’t have its own manufacturing
facilities. Companies like Jabil also manage supply chain and
fulfillment, so startups don’t need to spend scarce attention on
managing warehouses and shipping contracts.
The story of the Pebble watch is similar.
Beyond the way it was made, or the margin by which its founders
Kickstarter fundraising goal, the really interesting thing is its
competition. A team of upstarts with no
manufacturing capabilities managed to raise funds, design and release
a product, and beat Apple, one of the world’s most
capable companies, to market by more than a year. Pebble spent vastly less than Apple in the process; and it’s reasonable to guess that Pebble’s presence significantly raised Apple’s
stakes, forcing them to redesign and rethink the iWatch. As in Web
software—where low costs and constant clean-sheet hacking mean that
one-person startups can release better products than incumbents—
the economies of scale in hardware are on their way to being
Additive manufacturing and other digital fabrication techniques are further disrupting the advantages that established companies hold. These technologies reduce fixed costs, and although they generally cost more per unit than conventional manufacturing techniques, they support highly customized products and make it dramatically easier for product creators to bring design refinements to market. Entrepreneurs are exploring markets for digitally-fabricated products from custom earbuds to children’s orthotics.
is another project doing an end-run around established
industries. Biohackers have had a number of low-cost PCR options for
a few years now. The next step beyond PCR
is qPCR, which incorporates both the
PCR process and real-time analysis. qPCR machines are available from
traditional lab suppliers for tens of thousands of dollars. But Chai
qPCR has successfully designed and prototyped an open source machine, and
raised funds for initial production of a $1,500 unit on
Kickstarter. Do you want to detect
infections diseases, identify food contaminants, and more on your
desktop? Now you can.
The Internet of Things
isn’t just about tiny Silicon Valley–style garage startups, though.
We don’t expect the established industrial companies to stand still, and
we don’t want them to.
The industrial giants are already in the process of reinventing
themselves. Automakers are racing to create
app platforms for cars that will
decouple the development cycles for entertainment, navigation, and
connectivity from the much longer development cycles for cars. Ford’s
OpenXC data bus promises
to open the company’s cars to spontaneous
innovation by developers who can think up creative applications for
drive-train data. Nearly 30 automakers have joined Google in an effort to bring the Android operating system to cars. Initiatives like these open the doors to third-party
innovation, but more than that, they recognize how our markets are
shifting. Where is the value in a car? Is it in the chassis, the
wheels, the body? Increasingly, the value is diffuse: it’s in the software
components and accessories that are layered onto the car. Building an
open API onto the car’s data bus recognizes that reality.
That shift of value into a blend of machine and software changes the
business of producing cars. It simplifies inventory, since cars ship
with GPS and other accessories installed, which are then enabled or
disabled by the dealer. No need to stock seven different accessory
packages; the car becomes whatever it’s
supposed to be when it’s bought.
If the sport model has an oil pressure gauge and the family sedan has
an idiot light, that’s just a software
setting that changes what’s sent
to a screen.
Such accessories can also be updated in the field. Functionality that’s
cast in stone years before the car reaches the market doesn’t cut it, and
automakers have a new opportunity to respond to market demand with much
more flexibility. As software reaches deeper into integration with the
drive train, even bigger upgrades become possible: Tesla
adjusted the suspensions
on every one of its sedans through an over-the-air
software update in late 2013, and a month later
adjusted the cars’ chargers
the same way.
Over-the-air updates aren’t just for big items like cars. Nest’s
fire alarm could initially be silenced with a wave of the hand. This
feature made it possible to disable the device inadvertently. Rather
than recalling the units, they were able to issue an automatic update
that disabled “wave” control. Customers didn’t need to do anything,
which is as it should be. And all the devices were updated, not just
the ones whose owners were willing to take them down and mail them in.
Ford, GE, and other industrials are realizing that they are software
companies, even if their products are shipped as tons of steel and
aluminum. The big machines that make up the basic infrastructure of our
lives—cars, power turbines, furnaces—have been refined over many
decades. They’re exquisitely optimized. The cost of further improvements
in materials and physical design is high. Software intelligence of the
sort that’s commonplace on the Web is just starting to touch these
machines, and it offers an entirely new set of improvements as well as a
less expensive approach to existing features.
What does this mean for innovation? Considered purely as plastic or
metal, it’s hard to imagine significant
improvements to garbage cans and
street lamps. But a garbage
can that’s accidentally forgotten
could notify the crew that is hasn’t
been picked up. A can buried by a snowplow could make its presence
known. An autonomous garbage truck could locate garbage cans without
human assistance, and dump them without human intervention. Likewise,
imagine a networked streetlamp: it could act as a public WiFi access
point for anyone in the area, it could display notifications about bus
service, weather updates, or whatever you want. It could even call the
police if it “hears” an auto accident or a human cry for help.
These ideas require looking at a garbage can or a streetlamp as a node
in a software system. In turn, the companies that make them need to
think of themselves not as organizations that stamp steel, mold plastic,
or forge iron, but companies that develop software. That organizational
change is happening, and corporations that don’t get it will be left behind. Those that do get it will find that they can be more creative, more novel, and more impactful than many of the companies that we conventionally call “tech companies.”
Insurance, which Tim O’Reilly has said might become “the native business model for the Internet of Things,” illustrates this transformation even in non-tech companies that don’t have anything to do with manufactured goods. In 2008, Progressive Insurance made behavior-based car insurance pricing available nationwide. Customers who agree to install a monitoring device on their car’s diagnostic port get a break on their insurance rates and pricing that varies according to usage and driving habits.
Connected hardware, by reporting conditions as they actually exist rather than as they’re predicted to exist, could transform insurance markets. Insurers who understand hardware can use it to mitigate risk, perhaps underwriting monitoring and safety infrastructure in the process, and compete effectively. These companies that once existed strictly in the abstracted world of finance must now become tech companies expert in connected devices and their possiblities.
One of the biggest trends enabling the Internet of Things (and all its
variants) is what we’ve called the “new
manufacturing.” The new
manufacturing is really about removing the friction that makes hardware
We’ve already mentioned offshoring in China, and seen that it
is now an option for
small companies and even individuals—a dramatic shift from just a few years ago. While working with overseas
vendors can be hard for a small startup, companies like
PCH can now handle all the complexity,
including supply chain management, production, and quality control.
incubator, Highway1, is dedicated to
helping hardware startups get off the ground. Highway1 works with
companies as they go from the prototype stage to manufacturing, dealing
with offshore vendors, financing inventory, and learning to manufacture
at scale. Large production runs of high-quality hardware used to be
territory reserved for established industrials; no more.
New tools have also taken the friction out of the design and prototyping
process. The current generation of software tools from established
vendors like Autodesk and new
projects like Makercam make it
easy to generate 3D models for your product, and they’re increasingly
bridging the gap between computer and prototyping machine, working
seamlessly with drivers for 3D printers and CNC tools. We’re now
seeing more advanced home printers that can deal with
We’re also seeing
computer–controlled milling machines. And
while home 3D printers are great, milling
When they’re combined, the capabilities of
even a small machine shop start to approach those of a large
industrial plant, at least for small runs.
Following additive and subtractive manufacturing to the desktop,
automated electronics assembly is rapidly becoming accessible,
too. Tempo Automation is developing an inexpensive
desktop pick-and-place machine that makes
small-run assembly of surface-mounted electronics possible. Tools like
this development loops that might last for days when working with an
outside contract manufacturer and condense them to hours. The result
will be software-like development cycles and a
rapid expansion of the problem space that electronics can address.
It’s tempting to think of the reduction in friction as a technological
revolution, but there’s nothing here that’s really new on its own.
Computer-controlled milling machines have been around for decades, as
have 3D printers and CAD tools. What’s different is that the tools are
much more accessible. Few
people could create a design on 1980s CAD tools; they were highly
specialized, and had difficult user interfaces that required lengthy
training. Now that hobbyist 3D printers are under $1,000,
CAD vendors have realized that to flourish, they have to make tools
that are very capable, easy to use, and inexpensive. Just about anyone
could create a design using Autodesk’s
iPad apps, many of which are free.
Tool vendors are learning that consumer grade is the new professional
grade; professionals now want the same ease of use that consumers
For applications where a professional-scale printer is still necessary,
there’s always a supplier ready to make the stuff for you. Mark
DeRoche, founder of Aerofex, was
able to design large carbon fiber parts for an airframe on his laptop,
ship the design files to a fabrication facility, and receive
samples within days. That’s a reduction in friction. Just as Amazon
Web Services revolutionized data centers by giving startups access to
computing services that they could never afford to build,
custom fabrication shops give hardware startups access to tooling and
equipment that they could never buy.
We may never eliminate friction entirely. The real world has
constraints that you just don’t find in software development. Still,
the kind of software that can understand and deal with real-world constraints is becoming available to individual prototypers. Programs
that can map out toolpaths, identify conflicts, and find ways to work
around them are now a matter of running an open source script on your
Amateurs won’t start fabricating their own processors or jet
engines any time soon. True expertise is as important as
ever, but expertise is becoming available in modules, rather than in
rigid take-it-or-leave-it packages. If you know something about design
and marketing but not much about manufacturing, you can have PCH handle
that part—obsessing over suppliers, multiple-injection processes, and
logistics—while you keep your mind on product vision.
The Internet of Things is bringing software above the level of a single
of the key advances in Web 2.0, to the physical world. It’s
not remarkable that a thermostat, an airplane, or a cellular tower is
the sense that it has a microprocessor in it that performs
some sort of realtime control). Real intelligence comes from
interconnections between devices and to lots of different kinds of
software—as when an electric car starts charging at night because
software at the level of the grid signals that electricity prices have
gone down (a process that is itself kicked off by lots of networked
measurements across the grid).
To take advantage of that kind of intelligence, hardware companies are
now building their products with explicit APIs. Devices from
Philips Hue light bulbs to
John Deere tractors have published APIs that let developers find novel uses
for their products and turn them into platforms. The result is a kind of
modular comparative advantage: the best heavy-equipment maker can build
tractors, and software engineers can find ways to integrate them with
the best software.
Whether we’re talking about clothes and a dryer, GPS and maps, home
lighting, or garbage cans, we’re talking about software systems that run
across many devices. Smart light bulbs are somewhat interesting; they
become much more powerful when they’re connected in a system with other
devices. It’s relatively simple to build lighting that
from room to room. The individual light bulbs are controlled by a
program that also reads motion detectors scattered throughout the house.
You might find lights switching on and off as you move a bit creepy,
but it’s not hard to do.
Google Maps is an excellent example of software running across multiple
devices. Although Maps looks like it’s just displaying a map on your
phone and plotting your location on the screen, the service’s amazingly
accurate realtime traffic data hints at much more. Those traffic
conditions don’t come from helicopter reports—they come from millions
of Android phones, each of which is reporting its status to the servers.
If the phones are moving, traffic is flowing. If the phones on Route
101 are moving at 5 miles per hour, there’s a traffic jam. Your phone
isn’t just displaying traffic
conditions, it’s also reporting traffic
conditions, as part of a much larger system.
We will see many more systems like this. Electric cars, air
conditioners, and other appliances that consume a lot of power can
communicate with a smart electrical grid and optimize their use of
power. You’ll program them with your preferences, which could be “don’t
run when electricity is expensive.” Once you have this
ability, it makes sense for the electrical company to give you
discounted rates for
your power consumption to off-peak hours. Why dry your clothes during
the day when electrical use is at a premium? If you’re starting and
stopping the dryer by hand, shifting your usage to off-peak is at best a
pain, and probably impractical. But a smart dryer can take care of that
for you by participating in a network of devices that works above the
level of any single device.
If you’ve driven
around much in California, you’ve probably seen large
wind farms for generating electricity. Optimizing the location of the
windmills and adjusting the pitch of the blades for each windmill in the
farm is a difficult problem. In a wide-ranging post on
Edison’s Desk blog, Colin McCulloch explains that every turbine is in
its own unique environment, determined in part by the turbines around
it. His solution is “both
automatic and remotely executed”; the optimal
configuration for a turbine is computed remotely and downloaded to the
turbines automatically as they run. The turbines sense conditions
around themselves and transmit data to GE’s cloud, which optimizes a
solution across the entire farm, and transmits it back to the individual
turbines. “Every turbine can be…tested simultaneously, and each will
receive optimized parameter settings unique to its own
micro-environment.” Software above the level of the single device
A network isn’t just a bunch of devices that magically communicate with
each other. We knew how to do this back in the 1970s. The
brilliance of the ARPANET was the idea of protocols that were both
standard and public, so that anyone could build equipment that could
interoperate with everything else.
We take this for granted now, but think what the Web would be like if
you needed one browser to watch the news on CNN, another to use
Facebook, and another to watch movies on Netflix. Imagine if these
browsers didn’t even run on the same hardware. That was more or less
the situation we lived in until the 1990s. You used a TV to watch the
news, a radio to listen to music, and you connected a VCR or DVD player
to your TV to watch movies. There were standards, but the standards
were so specific that they didn’t standardize much. One box could never
do what another box did.
Standard protocols turn devices into platforms. As the networking
protocols that became the Web achieved dominance, we started to
understand that you didn’t need specialized equipment, that a laptop
with a high-definition monitor could be a better TV than a TV, and that
both producer and consumer would be better off if any browser could
interact with any web service.
We need to do the same thing for the Internet of Things.
Imagine a house full of
network-enabled light bulbs. As Matthew Gast
many layers need to be standardized. What do we want to do
besides turn them off and on? Is there other information we want to
carry? Philips’ Hue lets you control the
intensity of each color component. There are many, many ways to use
that capability: do you want lights that adjust themselves to the music
you’re playing? Do you want lights that turn off when they detect that
you’re in bed? Should lights dim when they detect trace compounds from
a bottle of wine? A light bulb (or any other device) could sense
contextual information and transmit it back to the application.
But fascinating as the possibilities are, none of this can happen
meaningfully without standards. You probably have many light bulbs in
your home. You don’t want to buy them
all from Philips; you’d rather
take advantage of local sales and deals as they come up. And you
probably don’t want different apps for controlling the Philips bulbs in
the kitchen, the GE bulbs in the living room, and the Sylvanias in the
bedroom. Just remembering which bulbs are where is a huge headache.
But more importantly, the most brilliant applications for smart light
bulbs are likely to come from some unexpected source other
than light bulb manufacturers. A sleep expert, for instance, might
develop lighting cycles that help us get better sleep, or a maker of
entertainment systems could find a new way to make light bulbs work in
concert with movies and music.
APIs need to enable entire systems to work together: if
you want your security system to turn on your lights when it thinks
something is wrong, you need a software layer between the two that has
access to both. In the same way, an airline that uses instrumented jet
engines won’t realize their full potential until it connects them with
its human resources, ticketing, and weather databases to completely
optimize its operations.
In a world where every vendor rolls its own communications and hopes
that the winner will take all, you end up with a mess: incompatible
light bulbs from different vendors with different capabilities and
different control software. There is no “win” here; everyone loses.
We’ve seen a few steps in the right direction as the market demand for
standardization and openness has become clear. As soon as Philips made
its Hue bulbs available, users
began reverse-engineering them. Philips, sensing demand and seeing
opportunity in giving developers a platform, released its own
official API for the bulbs in early
2013. But this is only a start. Independent efforts,
like Thing System
from Alasdair Allan and Marshall Rose, promise a single
centralized API for controlling many unstandardized devices.
Zigbee offers a
home automation standard
for controlling many different types of devices, including lighting,
locks, alarms, shades, heating, cooling, and electrical power. It’s
unclear how widely this standard has been adopted, though their
alliance has roughly 150 members, including Philips.
Software has been steadily wandering away from the PC since the early
2000s—first into mobile phones, then into tablets. Design had to change
as consumers’ modes of interaction with software changed, but mobile
software carried over a great deal of PC vernacular: you click on icons
to launch applications, tap on text fields to start typing, and bring up
toolbars to change settings. The coming explosion of intelligent devices
will require a more radical change for designers as they’re asked to
create systems that blend software and hardware into entirely new kinds
Shine activity tracker, for instance, has no screen and no buttons.
Users interact by tapping it and reading patterns from its twelve LEDs:
double-tap and the device first shows activity progress, then displays
the time in a sequence of blinks. (Full disclosure: Misfit is a
portfolio company of O’Reilly’s sister venture capital firm,
Many devices go beyond omitting the conventional screen and keyboard;
they have interfaces that attempt to forego interaction completely.
Connected devices can apply machine learning and use data gathered above
the level of an individual device to anticipate needs and preempt them.
The Nest has an intuitive interface that’s easy to use, but its real
brilliance is that, after a few weeks of occasional
adjustment, the typical user won’t have to interact with it at all.
Beautiful as the Nest is, it’s not an iPhone.
Its goal isn’t to make you
spend time with it. Its goal it to disappear into the infrastructure,
to be ignored.
Similarly, an impact-sensing
football or hockey helmet is ultimately just a helmet. It can’t
have any more of a “user interface” than a traditional helmet. It just
collects data and reports it back to a cell phone. And the cell phone
itself should remain quiet, unless there’s a dangerous impact or the
coach wants a summary report. The technical sophistication of the
helmet can’t call attention to itself. If it doesn’t disappear, it’s
The Internet of Things demands that we think about what we want from
our devices: what are they for, what do we want to accomplish, and how
can they assist us and get out of the way. We don’t necessarily want
artificial intelligence, as
argues. We want artificial smartness, smart assistants that can help
with specific tasks, like
which promises to turn you into a restaurant-quality chef. Its goal
isn’t to be amazing, it’s to make you amazing. Doing that requires
rethinking user interfaces. A cooking appliance with hot surfaces is
a hostile environment for a touch screen. And, unlike the Nest or a
helmet, this appliance requires some interaction with the user: it
needs to know what you want to cook, it needs to tell you when it’s
done. There’s one control on the
device itself; otherwise, it communicates with you through your
phone. Just as the browser became a generalized user interface for
Web 2.0, the smart phone is becoming the standard user interface for the
Internet of Things. But what is that user interface? Just
text? A smart phone supports many UI options that didn’t exist for
Web 2.0. Voice, video, SMS: it’s all fair game, as
designers try to craft user experiences that do what’s necessary and
then get out of the way.
When devices combine hardware and software, it is crucial for designers
to understand the constraints of both, and to understand manufacturing well enough to turn it into a design input.
That’s a staggering order: web
design alone is complicated enough. The good news is that
and new ways of engineering, making, and delivering products
mean that no one person
needs to do low-level engineering in both hardware and software on a
reasonably simple product.
Software can ease the expertise challenge by
handling some of the complexity of design. Even browser-based design
software and mobile apps can produce refined designs and send them to
fabrication services and CNC routers.
Iris, a robotic cinematography platform
from Bot & Dolly, includes a Maya plug-in so that production designers
can control industrial robots through tools they’re already familiar
with—no expertise in industrial controls needed.
Design has always been important, but in the past year, we’ve really
recognized its centrality.
Apple’s success has shown
that design is a key business asset. Nest would have failed if their
thermostats weren’t practically art objects.
Designers boil experiences that could be maddening and complicated down into experience that are simple and beautiful. A well-designed object
anticipates the user’s needs and improves the experience, rather than
getting in the way.
Designers don’t just make things pretty
after the engineers have done their job. They change the world.
As software becomes more deeply integrated in the machines around us, it
brings the software-as-a-service model with it, supporting business
models that sell physical devices incrementally. Software as a service
recognizes comparative advantage: Amazon is better at running a server
center than you are, so let Amazon run your servers while you focus on
building your product.
Machine-as-a-service builds on the same idea: let a company that knows
how to manage a car’s life cycle own and maintain cars, and rent them by
the mile as needed.
It also realigns incentives, letting companies that build machines
capture the value of their longevity. GE, as a manufacturer of jet
engines, is good at maintaining them, and it’s in a position to realize
value from its maintenance contracts by building jet engines that are
reliable and easy to maintain. Consumers aren’t always very good at
investing in long-term value, but institutions with longer horizons and
better information can afford to make those investments, and they’ll be
able to take advantage of physical-world-as-a-service models.
Here’s an example. We’ve
already mentioned that the portion of a car’s
value corresponding to software-defined features (navigation,
entertainment, comfort) has become higher in the last few years, and a
software improvement to those features can improve the value of a car.
About a third of new cars in America are leased rather than bought
outright. When a lease ends, its underwriter has a used car on its hands
that it needs to sell. By making more of a car software-defined—and
therefore easily upgradable long after it’s sold—automakers have been
able to improve the resale value of their cars and lower lease prices as
The idea that everything is a service is changing the way we do
business in other ways, pushing web-style business models into industries that haven’t really touched the web before. Just as the
handles restaurant bills
automatically—you walk in, order, eat, and walk out, and the app pays
the bill without involving you at all—a smart car could also pay for
its own gas. GPS tells the car where it’s located; maps identify the
particular gas station; and a billing API, like Stripe, processes the
charge. Automated payments could prove essential to new business
models. Cover handles simple problems, like splitting the bill
with your dining partners. As a “sharing economy” becomes more real,
and as cars become shared goods rather than personal property, cars
will need to “split the tab” between users according to the
miles they’ve driven.
(Full disclosure: Cover is a
portfolio company of O’Reilly’s sister venture capital firm,
The next step forward in implementing the physical world as a service
is allowing the users themselves, rather than professional developers,
to build the connections. We see a hint of that in
If This Then That (also known as “IFTTT”), a service that allows users to
write very simple “recipes” that connect their
services (called “channels”). Most of the channels are
typical software services: you can use IFTTT to post your tweets to
Facebook, for example, or to get a text message when a package you’re
tracking changes status. They’ve been adding hardware
services: you can use IFTTT to script your Nest, your Android Wear
devices, your own
creations, and other devices (WiThings, Jawbone, lighting, electrical
outlets, and more). While
scripting your environment may sound like leading edge geekery,
IFTTT’s programming language is extremely simple: it’s really just “if
this, then that” (if something happens, do something). It’s the
logical plumbing for the Internet of Things. If the physical world is
a service, then you need to be able to use those services on your own
When software and hardware are tightly joined, you can choose whether to
handle a problem with bits or with atoms. Take a physical problem and
make it a control problem, then handle with software—or avoid the
computation step and handle a problem with a mechanical contrivance or
Baxter, the $25,000
manufacturing robot from Rethink Robotics, uses powdered-metal gears
rather than machined gears in order to keep costs down. But these
less-expensive gears have more backlash—movement due to gaps between the
gear teeth—than the more expensive gears used in traditional (and more
expensive) industrial robots. Rethink’s answer: to model the backlash in
Baxter’s software and preempt it.
A single upgrade to Baxter’s software
last fall made the robot 40% faster and twice as precise.
Consider another physical problem that can be made into a control-system
problem easily and effectively: a furnace. Making a furnace more
efficient might involve improving its materials or its physical design.
Those approaches entail substantial engineering efforts and a reworking
of manufacturing processes—and do nothing for furnaces that are already
installed. But add software to the thermostat that controls the furnace
and you can improve its efficiency dramatically by simply optimizing the
way it’s switched on and off.
Makani Power uses autonomous
kites to generate electricity more reliably than conventional
turbines. The ability to control a kite through on-board processors
lets it replace a huge, static support weighing many tons. As a
result, a kite requires much less material than a wind turbine, and can take
advantage of stronger and more consistent winds at higher altitudes. Makani’s founder, Saul Griffith, calls it “replacing mass with math”.
Josh Perfetto of Open qPCR states this principle succinctly: “So much
of the performance and usability of our machine comes from software.”
To him, that’s their core advantage: they can upgrade their machines
through frequent updates, and deliver updates through the web.
“Simple stuff, I know, but our competitors just don’t do it.”
Any new technology is subject to unintended consequences. The
convergence of hardware, software, and networking is no exception. Here
are a few of the problems we see surfacing as we enter the era of
The convergence of hardware and software changes the problem of computer
security in terms of both increased exposure (through many more
connected nodes) and increased acuteness (through dangerous equipment
that wasn’t connected to the Internet a few years ago). Could a
terrorist open a gas valve through a remotely-supervised industrial
control system? Injure hospital patients by hacking into connected
Yes, in theory. But those scenarios, as scary as they are, must be balanced against the benefits that are at the heart of a decision to connect
something: connecting a machine is often about improving operational
safety even as it increases the chance of a network attack.
Remotely-monitored gas pipeline valves are much safer than unmonitored
valves. The small risk of an intentional attack is outweighed by the
certainty of a faster response to an equipment failure.
Networked hospital systems can improve patient outcomes by
anticipating changes and alerting doctors. And, in many cases,
Internet-enabled intrusions are more difficult and more fanciful than the traditional, physical, intrusions. Someone could open your door
remotely, but it’s already relatively easy to pick a common lock.
The real problem with smart hardware is that the scope of a potential
attack changes. Unlike a physical attack, a network attack can be
programmed. You could potentially unlock doors by the thousands by discovering a single vulnerability—a
significantly different problem from the world of thieves and pranksters
working one trick at a time.
We’ve seen an inkling of that already.
Stuxnet spread through Iran’s
nuclear agency by exploiting a print spooler vulnerability in Windows,
propagating itself until it eventually found an opening into the Siemens
industrial-control software that ran Iran’s centrifuges. A
attack targeted network-enabled refrigerators. The goal of the attack
wasn’t to melt ice cubes or spoil milk. Who would care? This attack
was all about building a botnet for sending spam email. And while spam
may feel like a 1990s problem, in this case it demonstrates that the
security game isn’t what it used to be. Similarly, there’s a
that uses devices from thermostats to
home routers to launch massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS)
Unlock 10,000 doors, yes—but
the real goal probably isn’t what’s behind those doors.
Likewise, security expert and
O’Reilly author Nitesh
Dhanjani has demonstrated an
the Philips Hue light bulbs. The significance of this attack isn’t its
prank potential. It’s that an attacker could potentially turn off the
lighting in a hospital, or even cause a widespread blackout by disabling
the individual bulbs. Attacking a power plant is risky, difficult, and
most damage is relatively easily repaired. Disabling millions of
devices across a large city is a different kind of distributed damage
that may well be more devastating. The greatest danger of the Internet
of Things is that it changes the nature of an attack; we’re now playing
a distributed game where any vulnerability is multiplied by thousands.
When all our devices are interconnected, we become interconnected. If
your refrigerator knows what you buy, will it tell your insurance
company about your diet? If your washer knows what kind of clothes you
wear, will it sell that information to marketers? Will all this data
end up in the hands of the NSA, and if so, what will they do with it?
Everything we do casts off information in a kind of data smog. In the
past, we haven’t had the tools to collect and make use of that
information. Now we do. Every device on the Internet of Things is both
a data generator and a data-collection point.
We don’t yet understand all the implications of being connected. In some
respects, our concern with privacy is a creation of the 1950s and the
anonymity of the suburbs. We were shocked when
figured out a teenager was pregnant, based on her buying patterns, and
sent her advertisements for baby products before her parents
knew. One of your authors has argued that a
small-town pharmacist would have made the same observation
in the 1930s or 40s. But the stakes are higher now. What does it mean
for Google to know how you’ve set your thermostat? In commercial and
industrial applications, could connected devices amount to industrial
Think back to any of the fuel crises of the past 50 years, when people
were asked to reduce their thermostats. Think of the current drought in
California, and Internet-enabled devices to control lawn sprinklers. Do
we want enforcement agencies to subpoena water sprinkler data? Data is
already a useful tool for enforcing regulations about how we use scarce
resources. But the larger point is that we don’t know how our data will
be used, and we don’t know the consequences of using
it. And we don’t
know what our laws mean, or how they will be enforced; after all,
collecting the search histories of virtually every citizen (to say
nothing of motion-sensor data in our homes) wasn’t even remotely
feasible a few years ago.
The “we don’t know”
is scary. Social norms surrounding privacy are
certainly changing, and it would be a mistake to impose the 50s-based
culture that we grew up with on the future. But it’s equally mistaken
to pretend that we aren’t facing critical issues. When all our things
are watching us, who watches the watchers?
Will our current network technology survive the convergence of hardware
and software? It can support very high data rates, up to 100Gbps for
short-haul wired Ethernet, and well over 100Mbps for wireless. But
that’s not the problem. Our current technology makes an implicit
assumption that devices on the network transmit relatively large chunks
of information. So far, we’ve rarely, if ever, felt the effects of that
assumption. A device that wants to send a few bytes at a time isn’t a
big issue, because there aren’t many of them. What do we have on a
typical home network? So far, a few laptops, some cell phones and
tablets, some printers, IP-enabled cameras, and a few other devices—a
few dozen at most. An office might be 100 times that.
But what if every conceivable device was network-enabled? What if every
square foot of wall had a temperature sensor, every item of clothing had
some sort of network tag, every light bulb, and so on? There could
easily be thousands of devices in a home, and millions in an office.
What if these devices are relatively chatty, and send lots of small
pieces of data? Could our current network survive?
Probably not. The MQTT protocol is a relatively
unknown part of the TCP/IP family that is designed to be implemented on
relatively simple devices that transmit small chunks of information,
in applications where network bandwidth is at a premium.
IBM has released an
source implementation of MQTT. Cisco’s
fog computing is
about providing the infrastructure necessary to push intelligence out
from a centralized “cloud” to the edges of a network. (It’s perhaps
ironic that this was the original Internet vision, before we became
addicted to huge centralized data centers.) When there’s more
intelligence at the edges of the network, there may be less need to
send data into the center. There’s certainly a need for more sophisticated
routing and switching in the customers’ premises. And at the October 2014 Strata + Hadoop World conference in New York, Anna Gilbert spoke about how
smart devices at the edges of a network can preprocess and precompress
data before transmitting it.
At the lower levels of the network, Google, Samsung, and several other
companies have formed the
which is a consortium to develop a low-power mesh wireless network that can
interconnect large numbers of devices. Since Thread uses the same
frequencies and chipsets as
Zigbee, existing products can be converted with no more than a
Whether MQTT, Fog Computing, and similar efforts
from other vendors solve the problem remains to be seen—regardless of
advances in protocols, we’ll still need much bigger tubes and better ways to connect to them through both formal and ad-hoc means.
It’s unfortunate that we have to bring up intellectual property,
but we do. If standard APIs for the physical world
enable the Internet of Things to be productive, and not just a mess of
curious gadgetry, then the idea that APIs are patentable, as
Oracle argued in its
lawsuit against Google, is pure poison. Fortunately, the courts have
ruled against Oracle once, but the case has only started the appeals
process. Could Philips sue another company that implements its light
bulb API? If so, that will be the death of smart lighting.
It’s not just about APIs, though; whether for hardware or software, most
patents are written so vaguely that they any significant new technology
is covered by some out-of-date patent. Nest has been sued
Honeywell and several other companies for patents such as using a
circular control to select a temperature. As Nest argues, the point of
this litigation isn’t about patent royalties—it’s clearly to stifle
innovation in an industry that has scarcely changed in decades.
Startups are particularly vulnerable in patent fights, since they have
little money to spend and would rather not spend it on lawyers. More
than a few startups have ended under the threat of patent litigation.
(Now that Nest has been bought by Google, they have little to worry about.)
Whether or not there’s any merit
to the case, if a young company can’t
afford to fight, it loses. It would be tragic if the convergence of
hardware and software, driven by small companies taking advantage of
frictionless manufacturing and pervasive computing, were to come to an end
through the patent courts. We may be seeing a disruption in economies
of scale, but legal fees are driven by scale, and have no respect for
We haven’t invented the future (yet)—we’re
still inventing the tools
for inventing the future. We haven’t
taken any of the innovations we’ve
discussed as far as they can go. We’re a long way from
smart dust; home
manufacturing is almost a reality, but there’s still friction in the
manufacturing process. We haven’t yet solved supply chains, order
entry, or fulfillment, though there are contractors and services ready
to handle all these problems, for a fee. And most of our ideas about
what to build are still relatively uninspired.
Will frictionless manufacturing lead to a new industrial revolution?
Probably so, but we don’t yet know. Will affordable hardware
innovation reinvigorate economies both in urban centers like Detroit and
in rural areas that have long been abandoned by the factories of the first
and second industrial revolution? We hope so, but it’s a long way from
hope to reality. Will our creations enrich our lives, or will we
degenerate to couch potatoes searching the Web, until we’re eventually
jettisoned on a spaceship bound for nowhere? We hope it’s not the
latter. As Kelsey Breseman says in an
interview with O’Reilly
Radar, when our devices are smarter, they will enable us to “stop
interacting with our devices, stop staring at screens, and start looking
at each other, start talking to each other again.”
We’re still at the beginning. We can see some of the
possibilities, but we’re more
aware of limitless possibility than of any particular thing we might
create. We’re excited by the idea of a Tile chip and a Pebble watch,
even though both of us rarely lose our keys and don’t wear watches much.
These particular products aren’t important in themselves; what’s
important is that they’re signposts pointing toward a creative future,
filled with products we can’t yet imagine.
We don’t know where we’re headed,
but we never have. We’re in it for the