Inanimate objects are getting smarter, so businesses must too, says Matt Warman
The internet we’ve got at the moment is still in the process of revolutionising countless aspects of every business, usually for the better. But there’s a whole new internet coming, and new research suggests most companies are pretty much oblivious.
This new internet has been variously dubbed the internet of things, the web of everything, or less excitingly, the next obvious step. In consumer terms the idea is to connect things, from lightbulbs to hi-fis, to the internet and to each other. In the case of your central heating, for instance, it means your heating will automatically go off when, say, your phone is detected as being a certain distance away, and will come back on when you’re detected as travelling towards it and getting within range. Some services already offer this service, and it’s likely to get rather more mainstream. From a privacy point of view, it raises some interesting issues in theory, but in practice it’s hard to identify just who wants to hack in to your boiler when the bigger price might be a local power station. As is often the case with technology, the greatest threat to a user may come via their own grandchildren’s over-enthusiasm rather than any terrorist group. (And by the way if you’re worried about the greatest threat to the security of your mobile phone, it’s a toss-up between one’s own forgetfulness and gravity.)
When it comes to busineses, however, the internet of things provides three big themes to think about: the first is that it’s coming, both as an opportunity and a threat, whether you like it or not. In a survey by Spiceworks, the professional network for IT people, 71pc said that they believed the so-called ‘IoT’ will affect consumers and businesses, while presumably the remaining 29pc were coming up for retirement.
The most revealing statistic in the survey, perhaps, was that 59pc of those surveyed overall were not preparing to do anything about the coming future. That means the vast majority of people who think it’s important are also ignoring it, albeit either by choice or force. More than a quarter of respondents to the survey “don’t know how they’ll manage the influx of new connected things.”
The second key thing about this new future is likely to be a regulatory one: although European law is clear that consumers own their own data, whatever it’s about, actually extracting it from companies big and small is difficult. Users of external gas tanks, for instance, are unlikely early adopters of the IoT, their tanks automatically telling suppliers that they’re getting empty and that more supplies should be ordered. But try finding out, as a business or a consumer, precisely how much data is being collected, still less analysing it for yourself, and it’s a tricky task. Such data should simply be online, but it will probably take a few court test cases before we get there. And don’t think it will be simple: on Tuesday law firm Morrison and Foerster will present a webinar on the IoT with speakers from Brussels, Washington DC, London and Silicon Valley. The businesses that lead the way will see more positives than negatives.
Which leads neatly on to a third point: typified by Google ’s driverless cars – simply a clever thing connected to the web’s online maps, in many ways – it’s easy to say the IoT will hand jobs to machines.
In some cases, that may well be true, and I won’t be rushing to found a minicab business anytime soon. But much of the IoT’s revolution is likely to be about providing new opportunities for regular income for existing businesses. If that boiler tells you it needs servicing, or better still tells a heating company they should prompt a customer to service it, then there are more opportunities to encourage new business opportunities. Some of these chances will provide new subscription models, too.
We’re edging closer to the days of the fridge ordering its own milk, and it will be an era that will provide a host of new opportunities for forward-thinking firms. Some of those might even include internet-savvy dairy farmers .