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Revisiting the 'internet of nothings' -- where we are today

Picking a fight with someone else’s past predictions seems like a crappy thing to do. Especially for someone who also makes lots of forward-looking statements that could come back to haunt him. Nevertheless, that’s what I want to do.

Back in 2014, The Economist published an article called “The internet of nothings.” In it, the writer took on what they felt were the breathless and overblown predictions on the impact of IoT. And much of what they offered up as evidence was exactly right.

For example, the article pointed out the lack of standards and security for moving data around:

“These unglamorous middleware issues of standards, interoperability, integration and data management — especially privacy and protection from malicious attack, along with product liability, intellectual-property rights and regulatory compliance — are going to take years to resolve.”

Yet, while those points are correct, I would differ now, and at the time, in the conclusions.

“Only when they are will IoT have any chance of transforming society in a meaningful way. That day is a long way off.”

It’s hard to imagine one would argue today that IoT has had little effect on society to date. If nothing else, the explosion of smart devices hitting the consumer market reflects a growing awareness that “smart things” are going to be the new frontier of devices. The escalating battle for the home hub between Amazon and Google is a clear indicator that owning the heart of the IoT interface will put any vendor in a dominant position.

The (completely understandable) misconception about the impact of IoT on society is that we’ll be able to point to one thing, to one event, and say “there it is.” But we won’t. The impact of IoT will be like a potter, gradually shaping clay, not like a hammer hitting a vase. Society will conform slowly to the opportunities and pressures of IoT, and manufacturers from home automation, medical device, automotive, and sports and leisure, in addition to nearly every other stripe of enterprise, are starting to try to own and mold that new shape.

While the potential use cases for smart devices exist, it seems we’re well into the “years to resolve” with IoT middleware issues. I’d love to live in a world where a lack of standards for security and insufficient capability to defend against attack somehow hold back the adoption of technology. But I don’t — neither do you — and no other technological development has made this fact quite as clear as IoT has.

Let’s be honest here — poor security and privacy controls haven’t slowed us down in the past, and I really can’t find it in my perennially optimistic heart to think that they will now. The pressure to IoT-stuff, all kinds of stuff, is just going to get more and more urgent. Let’s reference the adoption of cloud delivery to help illustrate how this compares to IoT. If you attended a technology trade show five or six years ago, you’d be intimately familiar with the phenomenon of “cloud washing” — in which every conceivable product or service became attached to the concept of cloud delivery.

IoT-washing is going to make the cloud-washing look more like a quick spritz with water. The competitive pressure to take any number of normal objects and attach sensors to them is going to drive all kinds of odd product launches. Simply being able to make the claim that the device is “smart” enables companies to establish a differentiator, regardless of the actual value of that capability. As a society, we are so comfortable with the expectation that “tech” equates to “improved” that it’s not a hard sell to make people believe that a smart toaster is better than a dumb one, even if the end-resulting toast is no better. Making your product “smart” is going to define the new Wild West for all kinds of markets. Unsurprisingly, we’re not waiting for products to hit the market. Instead we are facing a potential deluge of every bizarrely connected product imaginable. And these things will have an impact on the way we think about and interact with technology.

And, as we’ve already seen, flooding the market with millions of poorly secured connected devices will have significant impact — just not the kind we want.

This intersection is where I find myself agreeing with the lack of IoT standards and security, as addressed in The Economist article. In the past, we’ve seen security improvements driven by either the pressure from the public when a breach occurs or from legislative pressure to meet compliance and regulatory standards. It’s hard to know what will help with IoT. It’s so diverse, covering so many markets, products and capabilities. In individual cases we can help protect the infrastructure itself (for example by enforcing standards on something like smart grid technology), but the scale and complexity of IoT make taking a holistic approach daunting in the extreme. It’s simply too easy to launch a connected product, and then the rest of society foots the bill for poor security and privacy controls. I wish there was an easy answer. (Actually, at this point, I’d settle for a difficult answer, if it was feasible.)

The internet of things is very, very real. And the impact will be immense. We won’t connect to the internet with a terminal, a laptop or even a smartphone. We’ll live inside it. IoT is already forming around us, and is growing at an incredible, unpredictable and uncontrolled rate. No one is in charge, of course, and no one has a plan beyond individual products. It’s just happening and happening much, much faster than we could have ever expected.

And if there is a “nothing” in IoT — it’s likely to be quaint concepts like “security” and “privacy.”

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.