Invisible Infostructure #2 - Let's Get Physical
While we tend to associate technology with the virtual world, the physical, ‘real’ world is equally a part of it now. With a multitude of tangible objects getting connected to the network, sensing and storing data, the boundaries between both worlds are quickly blurring. The Internet of Things provides unlimited opportunities for organizations to become smarter and get more intimately linked to their customers and partners, ultimately creating entirely new business. And the trend comes a 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), is likely to feature powerful networks comprised of 80 billion connected, intelligent objects - of which today we have only achieved 1%.
In such a world, anything connected to the network spews data. To collect and analyze that data, infrastructure must become 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 to provide 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 will certainly be accessed through APIs instead. Actually, mastering API management systems such as Mashery - recently acquired from Intel by Tibco - Apigee's Link for IoT or MuleSoft's API manager might be more key to your IoT projects than getting a grip on the 'things' themselves.
New architecture frameworks are required to address the significant technology and business challenges. Along with an initial focus on application development, sensory analytics, and new IT infrastructure, these frameworks will need to include (open source) machine architecture, governance, regulatory provisions, and the type of security capabilities that can provide adequate security for the users of those 80 billion connected things.
Organizations are forming consortiums (such as the Open Interconnect Consortium), providing development platforms (such as IBM’s IoT Foundation and Microsoft' Azure IoT Suite), and exploring new industry standards (such as HyperCat) to drive IoT adoption.
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 return, tracking human behavior and offering productive new desired features for customer needs will be the true measure of success for the IoT.
For a practical real world example, let’s look at Philips that allows external developers to use IFTTT (If This Then That) API scripts for their smart products, like the Wifi HUE light bulbs. By releasing more products that can be accessed through IFTTT, Philips allows customers to mash-up customized IFTTT “recipes” and share them with the outside world through a dedicated website. Philips then analyzes how consumers use their products and what new features they might desire in the future thus driving smarter product releases.
Michelin's CIO Agnès Mauffrey tells how the IoT will help the company shift from selling tyres to delivering smart serivces: "We use new technologies from the IoT to collect a broad array of extremely accurate data, such as tyre pressure. Once the data have been analyzed, our engineers and technicians can issue recommendations, typically for improving the safety and profitability of a fleet of vehicles. Services are created from these recommendations. We have deployed a laboratory that operates in real time, the 'road usage laboratory'. Smart sensors have been fitted to 2,800 vehicles throughout Europe. These vehicles belong to drivers with varying levels of experience. Their journeys will be studied over a three-year period. Furthermore, the data collected are not exclusively reserved for developing services. Our researchers use the data to mastermind new products with the aim of continually breaking new ground in the market."
Only ‘things’ do not become ‘virtual’; the reverse is happening as well. General Electric successfully used 3D printing to manufacture an entire, functional jet engine. 3D printing is clearly coming of age. 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). These objects can be printed with embedded intelligence, by infusing unique identifiers within the objects during their creation. It’s yet another illustration of blurring of the physical and virtual worlds.
Authoritative market estimates describe an IoT revenue pie of over 10 trillion dollars in forthcoming years. That makes a strong incentive for existing and future businesses to claim a slice. However, monetizing the IoT (see our elaborate analysis here) is in no way trivial or self-evident. Businesses will need to address the balance between the physical and digital world through ‘make’, ‘buy’, ‘partner’, and ‘crowdsourced’ models. In any case, the IoT is no longer a futuristic projection: it’s happening right now and true value creation depends not only on smart data gathering and analytics, but 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 how smart objects will create value.
When such a compelling platform emerges, infrastructure becomes infostructure.