Web-connected devices, not just mobile phones and 3G tablets but everything from home electronics to consumer packaged goods instrumented to transmit data to the Web, have become a part of every major speech here at the wireless industry’s giant conference in Orlando, CTIA. “All devices that can benefit from connectivity will be connected,” Hans Vestberg, CEO of Ericsson, said in a keynote, predicting that the world’s nearly 5 billion mobile phone subscribers today will be surpassed by 50 billion connected non-phone devices in 10 years.
Some people think that may be a conservative estimate of the possible impact of what’s called The Internet of Things. Chetan Sharma is one of the most respected analysts in the wireless industry; his original research is cited everywhere from the world’s biggest business and technical publications to the CTIA leadership’s opening adress at this, the wireless industry’s leading conference. I sat down with Sharma today and listened to him describe what he thinks a future of ubiquitious connectivity will look like.
We write about the Internet of Things frequently here, but Sharma’s vision of how it will unfold (especially in the marketing world) is one of the most compelling articulations I’ve seen yet. It’s a rich vision of the future – and it’s quite simple at the same time.
Chetan Sharma was educated as an electrical and biological engineer, then worked in early mobile startups, did consulting in wireless R&D strategy and has now had a private mobile analyst practice for 10 years. I admire his work a lot, follow him closely on Twitter and was very honored to get to talk to him.
“There are so many things we don’t do or don’t think about because we don’t think of our objects as network connected and it takes too much energy to make them connected,” Sharma says, “but if the embedded connectivity is there in a plug-and-play way…then you go beyond 3 screens and look at controlling everything inside a house, outside a house, controlling your surrroundings.”
Disrupting Industries & Everyday Life
Smart Utility Grids or Smart Homes are the most familiar vision of this kind of connectivity. They may have hit mainstream consciousness before they were really ready to hit the market, but vision and reality are coming together quickly now.
“A few years back I was working with a company that makes blinds, the idea was to control blinds with a cell phone,” Sharma says.
“For a home it doesn’t make that much sense, but if you think about buildings, the touch of a button can be huge energy savings.
“I think education is just dying for innovation. Kids can interact with more than just books and reading about history, imagine transforming that where you are using augmented reality instead of just reading. Learning about planets, instead of just looking in a book, imagine the solar system around you where you can touch and feel the planets.
“Information about energy use in a house, where energy might be leaking, that’s interesting. All these things can be done now but it takes too much energy to figure them out. If we can get all that info coming at you and just think about how to process it, it’s a no brainer.
“This work is already underway in healthcare, automotive and other industries. V2V, or vehicle to vehicle communication, is in the works – cars communicating between eachother to say you are too close to me, stay away. The roads could communicate with the cars and say ‘it’s too congested, take a different route.’
“This is where it needs to go and will go in 10 years, making everyday experiences much better and friction free. If a person has a desire to learn or shop or engage in social interaction… you’ll be able to do these things on a wall anywhere. It’s about reducing friction.”
“This is where it needs to go and will go in 10 years, making everyday experiences much better and friction free. If a person has a desire to learn or shop or engage in social interaction, it’s right there. Beyond just doing things on televisions and cell phones, you’ll be able to do these things on a wall anywhere. It’s about reducing friction. You can accomplish any given task today with 50 different steps but this future of connected devices is all about making things much easier.”
How Realistic is This Vision?
That sounds awfully futuristic, doesn’t it? The proccess of instrumentation, turning something quantifiably trackable, requires deployment of a new interface for every object that would become networked.
“All these sensors that will need to be deployed? That’s tenable,” says Sharma, calmly.
“If you’re talking about 50 billion connected devices, that’s seven sensors per human being. We probably already have seven sensors with us right now. Imagine a house having 50 or 100 sensors, using different technologies obviously, cellular is just one part of it.
“It sounds trivial but the fact of connectedness, interconnectedness and high bandwidth availability, I think that’s transformative in nature. TV experiences are familiar, but if we can connect TV and tablets and mobiles, that creates new ways of experiencing and sharing.”
Marketing Will Drive Adoption
Gadgets and gee-gaws sound like fun for some, but how will there ever be enough demand to make this real? Isn’t this ubiquitous computing stuff just for super-nerds from the 1980s and 1990s?
Mobile broadband and super-low cost sensors could enable brands to interact directly with consumers, for marketing and order fullfilment, from the objects themselves, through the web, with the retail middleman (and obfuscation) cut out. “Mobile internet has been around since ’98 but broadband wasn’t,” Chetan Sharma explains.
“The experience was lowsy, but with LTE coming, and latency low, that has a multiplier effect on usage. The fact is that connectedness is going to be there across multiple types of objects.
“It’s not just electronics, it’s cereal boxes, all kinds of objects will have intelligence and the ability to communicate. Connectivity is a significant multiplier. P&G ships 40 trillion some objects per year, imagine them all connected.”
What do you do with a connected cereal box?
“With a cereal box? You’ll communicate about health related issues, add social elements, easy ordering. A brand can build a direct relationship with the consumer without relying on retail stores. Look at the aftermarket, 30% of the diapers ordered are now ordered online. There’s no reason why that can’t happen on other objects. I think the chance for the brand to interact with consumers directly is huge.
“Brands have been losing direct relationships with consumers over the year, they want to get back in the game. When you have that many devices in the market of course every cent counts, but there are a number of things in development in the market working on dropping those costs.”
Is this environmentally tenable, I asked? Are there enough minable minerals to pull this off?
“When you say 50 billion devices, a lot of people think of tablets and smart phones,” Sharma said. “It’s true that’s going to be a constraint and new thinking may be required. If you look at companies like Kovio, NFC, printed electronics. Over the next five or 10 years new forms of electronics will come into play. If there is a need and a big enough market, humans are good at figuring things out.”