Is the Internet of Things a Vacuum for User Data?

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We’ve all heard about the Internet of Things (IoT), IBM’s Smarter Planet, Nest, and computers in cars and refrigerators. Not surprisingly, just as in every other hot software area, open source is playing a key role. In particular, open source-based groups like the recently announced Allseen Alliance and OSIOT are using open source as the basis for making everyone’s “Things” communicate with each other.

But even understanding the concept of connecting “everything,” it is surprising to hear Sir James Dyson on Science Friday anticipating the advent of the connected vacuum cleaner. Sure it makes sense that a consumer might want to check to see if there’s milk in the fridge on the way home from work, but do people really need such intimacy with their “hoover?”

The main theme of the Dyson’s talk on SciFri was the importance of failure—he built literally thousands of prototypes before shipping the first cyclonic cleaner. Those failures provided necessary feedback to get it right. As you can imagine, Dyson is a feedback junkie and the value he sees in the Internet of Things is the mechanism for understanding exactly how his customers use his products. This may be the killer app of IoT: Speedier, more efficient innovation via the big data of product usage data.

Many SaaS companies have been enjoying this benefit for some time… look at how quickly Google and Yahoo! and Facebook understand what’s working and not, and deploy a new release to address it. Veracode credits the rapid development of their security code scanning solution to being able to monitor what happens every time it’s run. SaaS is not just about how customers pay and where the software is running, it’s a different way of doing business with big benefits for product development organizations.

As far as physical product companies go, Dyson is not on the bleeding edge with respect to connectivity. Last April, GE invested $105M in Pivotal, the PaaS spin-off of EMC and VMWare, precisely to enable it to collect such data. Monsanto is working with farmers and equipment manufacturers to monitor what, and how much, fertilizer and seed go into every square foot of a field, as well as how much crop comes out. They mash that up with precise weather data to figure out how to increase production dramatically. And, of course, there’s the connected car, which is as much about efficient maintenance as it is streaming games and movies to the back seat.

All these companies will have to deal with privacy concerns. Farmers love the prospect of higher yields but they don’t necessarily want the guys in the next county to find out about it. And, if Monsanto knows to-the-minute how much wheat is harvested, someone has to make sure they’re not playing games on the Chicago Commodities Exchange. Consumers may not even want their neighbors to know how often they don’t vacuum. But on net, the Internet of Things should mean great things for innovation with all kinds of products.

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