Invisible Infostructure #2 – Let’s Get Physical

While we tend to associate technology with the virtual world, now the physical, ‘real’ world is equally a part of it. With a multitude of tangible objects that are connected to the network, which can sense and store data, the boundaries between both worlds are quickly blurring. The Internet of Things provides unlimited opportunities for organizations to become both smarter and even more intimately linked to their customers and partners. And the trend comes full circle with the rise of 3D printing, which allows enterprises to materialize ideas and concepts in ways that were previously unthinkable.

Let’s stay safely away from definition games and simply assume – together with our trusted friends from Wikipedia – that the Internet of Things (IoT) is the “interconnection of uniquely identifiable embedded computing devices within the existing Internet infrastructure”. Estimates differ, but the near future (2020) will very likely feature powerful networks comprised of 50 billion connected, intelligent objects.
In such a world, anything connected to the network spews data. To collect and analyze that data, the infrastructure truly becomes an infostructure: a foundation that builds new business capabilities on top of things, devices, wearables and even smart ‘matter’. Data, intelligence and analytics capabilities thus form a crucial component of any infostructure linked to the IoT.
Another key component will be providing access to smart objects through open, standardized and catalog-based Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), where the technology inside the actual objects in many cases will not be within the domain of the IT department but would certainly be accessed through APIs instead. It makes Intel’s acquisition of Mashery all the more understandable.
New architectural frameworks are required to address the significant technology and business challenges. Along with an initial focus on application development, sensory analytics and a new IT infrastructure, these frameworks will need to include (open source) machine architectures, governance, regulatory provisions and the type of security capabilities that can provide adequate security for the users of these 50 billion connected things. Organizations are forming consortiums (such as the Open Interconnect Consortium) and are providing development platforms (such as IBM’s IoT Foundation) and are exploring new Industry standards (such as HyperCat) to drive IoT adoption.
Furthermore, it’s important to realize that the Internet was born from the need for humans to connect with other humans. As a consequence, the Internet has a starring role to play in providing real world human context to the IoT picture. Even though a substantial part of the communication between objects within the IoT will be Machine-to-Machine (M2M) in nature, tracking human behavior and offering predictive new desired features for users customer needs will be the true measure of success for the IoT.
A practical real world example of this is Phillips, allowing external developers to use IFTTT (If This Than That) API scripts for their smart products – such as the Wifi HUE light bulbs. With releasing more products that can be accessed through IFTTT, it allows customers to mash-up customized IFTTT ‘recipes’ and share them with the outside world through a dedicated Phillips website. Phillips can then analyze how consumers use their products and what new features they might desire in the future, even smarter product releases.

But ‘things’ do not only become ‘virtual’: the reverse is happening as well. In 2014, General Electric already successfully used 3D printing to manufacture an entire, functional jet engine. 3D printing is clearly coming of age indeed. 3D printing – or additive manufacturing – is the process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital definition. The virtual design of an object is made using a 3D modeling program (or a 3D scanner to replicate an already existing object). Already, these objects can be printed with embedded intelligence by infusing unique identifiers within the objects during their creation. It is yet another illustration of the blurring of the physical and virtual worlds.

Authoritative market estimates describe a IoT revenue pie of over 10 trillion dollars in the forthcoming years. That makes a strong incentive for existing and future businesses to claim a slice. Businesses will need to address the balance between the physical and digital world through make, buy, partner and crowd-sourced models. The IoT is no longer a futuristic projection: it is happening right now and true value creation not just depends on smart data gathering and analytics, but much more on solving identified human needs.
Architects will need to design and deploy a stable, secure and open platform to fully leverage the potential of the Internet of Things in all of these dimensions. Even if it’s not always clear yet how smart objects will create value. When such a compelling platform emerges, infrastructure becomes infostructure.

Your expert: Corey Glickman  

Part of Capgemini’s TechnoVision 2015 update series. See the full overview here.