The 4 Flavors of The Internet of Things

Internet-of-Things-cisco-csco-stockTwo years ago, Fast Company reported on the “great tech war” of the four leading horsemen of the Internet–Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple (let’s call them the FAGA Four).  The race for Internet dominance has intensified since then, with Amazon pitting the Kindle Fire against the iPad and Google responding to Facebook with Google+.  Each of these four companies has moved from its base to capture more social, mobile, local, delivery, advertising, devices, and design dominions.

Even their emergent competition for the enterprise IT market has intensified lately, when Google introduced its Compute Engine and slashed the prices for its cloud services. Looks like it finally decided to make a more serious attempt to diversify from the $0.5 trillion global advertising market—where it gets almost all of its revenues—to the $3.7 trillion IT market. Facebook is the only one of the “Gang of Four” (Eric Schmidt’s term) that has stayed away from the enterprise. But for how long? After all, it has been leading the Open Compute project for the past two years, aiming to “spark a collaborative dialog” about designing and enabling “the delivery of the most efficient server, storage and data center hardware designs for scalable computing.”

A visionary statement like this befits a leading horseman of the Internet.  In the rapidly changing Internet landscape, when new, attention-grabbing companies rise from nowhere every few months (and have the audacity to refuse Facebook’s $3 billion acquisition offer), you sustain your leadership by pursuing a vision or at least being perceived as having one. “Vision envy” is how one of Leo Laporte’s guests on a recent This Week in Tech described the latest moves of the Internet’s leaders.

Today’s vision must revolve around the most significant Internet trend so far in this second decade of the 21st century: The Internet of Things or more broadly, the Internet of Stuff (the earliest mention of the term I could find is this 2009 SlideShare presentation). By 2020, IDC tells us, it will connect 212 billion “things.” And machine-generated data, according to IDC, will account for 42% of all the data created in the year 2020.

Based on recent news regarding visionary announcements or actions by the Gang of Four, I would like to offer the following four flavors of The Internet of Stuff.

The Internet of flying stuff: Connected “things” that move above the earth’s surface. The most recent move in developing the vision or the reality of the Internet of flying stuff was of course Amazon’s unveiling of its experimental Prime Air and its delivery drones. That this is not entirely pie in the sky or just a successful PR stunt by Amazon was made clear by the FAA’s announcement on December 30 of the six public entities that will develop research and testing sites for commercial drones. Earlier in 2013, Google unveiled Project Loon, “balloon-powered Internet for everyone.” It’s Google’s vision for extending the Internet to remote and rural areas. Adding a public sector dimension to this vision, the Brazilian government followed a few months later with its own version of a balloon-based Internet of flying stuff, Project Connect.

The Internet of moving stuff: Connected “things” that move on and below the earth’s surface.  There’s emerging interest in the potential benefits of connecting to underground systems, but the focus today is on the most visible moving things in our world: cars. The newly redesigned Ford Fusion has 74 sensors, including radar, sonar, cameras, accelerometers, temperature gauges and rain sensors, soon to substitute for drivers. By 2020, says Nissan’s CEO Carlos Ghosn, mainstream automakers will offer driverless cars, to avoid being “disrupted” by Silicon Valley. Google has led the effort to get drivers to use the Internet rather than waste their time driving but it may now be expanding the vision to include any autonomous moving thing. It recently acquired Boston Dynamics, a leader in mobile robots technology, and the eighth robotics company it has acquired in 2013. “Google is intent on building a new class of autonomous systems that might do anything from warehouse work to package delivery and even elder care,” said The New York Times. In a statement that captures the essence of the Internet of moving stuff, Google’s Andy Rubin told the Times— “computers are starting to sprout legs and move around in the environment”—promising that his Moonshot project will yield commercial products “in several years.”  One place to see mobile robots already in action, albeit indoors only, is Amazon’s distribution centers, especially after it acquired Kiva Systems in 2012. Watch Kiva’s Mick Mountz describes his robots “Highway Driving” in the warehouse—how long before they will move to real highways?

Internet of social stuff: Connected content in context or making sense of the quintillions of bytes connected people create every day. Facebook recently announced the formation of a working group that will “use new approaches in AI to help make sense of all the content that people share so we can generate new insights about the world to answer people’s questions.” It then established a partnership with New York University for a new center for artificial intelligence, headed by Yann LeCun.  Understanding context is what “search” is all about and of great interest to all members of the FAGA Four. In 2013, Apple bought Topsy, which “might have been appealing to Apple because of its expertise in searching and indexing the vast amounts of unstructured content that make up Twitter,” says Rob Bailey, CEO of DataSift; Amazon acquired social reading site Goodreads; and, not to be outdone on its own turf, Google launched its “Knowledge Graph,” demonstrating its growing understanding of the relationships between people, places, and things.

Internet of talking stuff:  Connecting moving and stationary “things” that communicate. This is all about user interface and it is Apple’s turf to lose.  In its 1987 mother-of-all-vision-videos, the knowledge navigator, Apple showed—twenty-four years before it launched Siri—a tablet-based “personal assistant” conversing with the user, a text-to-speech system and a gesture-based interface. The aforementioned acquisition of Topsy was considered also as potential boost to Siri’s search capabilities, but more to the point, “Apple has assembled a small team of notable names in speech technology and is looking to expand those efforts in the Boston area,” according to Xconomy. The same report points to an Amazon R&D team whose mission is “to push the envelope in automatic speech recognition (ASR), natural language understanding (NLU), and audio signal processing.” Google, for its part, continued to expand its capabilities in this area in 2013, e.g., recently extending voice search to PCs.

Xconomy’s Wade Roush thinks that the next “paradigm shift” will not come from the FAGA Four and Quartz’s Christopher Mims asserts that 2013 was “a lost year for tech,” as “M&A replaced innovation.” Maybe we will not see the Next big Thing emerging from Facebook, Amazon, Google or Apple. Maybe it will come from IBM, Samsung, or a China-based player. Maybe it will come from a startup that will refuse to be acquired and will grow to overshadow the FAGA Four. In any event, the Next Big Thing will probably be in one of the flavors (or a combination of two or three flavors) of the Internet of Stuff.

[Originally published on Inside Tech Talk]