What is this Internet of Things about?


There's been a lot of excitement with Apple’s announcement around HomeKit and Google’s purchase of Nest Labs. Clearly, they see gold in them hills, but what does it mean for you and the business you're in?

There are far more computers than there are people — not just laptops, iPads, etc., but the little microprocessors that exist in every modern appliance we own from microwaves to washers, vacuum cleaners to wrist watches — not to mention our cars. Think further, all the RFID tags being used to help facilitate getting manufactured goods from factory to Wal-Mart shelves to the security tags that inhabit every product box — the list goes on. What makes the Internet of things is that all of the "smart" appliances are becoming able to talk to one another. The ability to communicate is being installed in products whether that's Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Like most technologies, this will likely make our lives more complicated at first and only the tech savvy will engage. Then, companies will focus on the user experience to make it work for the rest of us, and it will become standard. Apple and Google have taken this call, which means things will move faster than we think.

The idea of having a universal remote to control lights, camera and shut the garage door is appealing until one begins to think of all the time that will be spent setting things up, making sure devices communicate with each other and that they'll actually function when needed and unaided, especially when on the other side of the country. For those of us who remember trying to set up your first home Wi-Fi system years ago — many phone calls later it mostly worked. Simplicity of the experience will be the name of the game. Users will have to be able to plug and play, otherwise it will be a much slower movement to the future.

There's no doubt that eventually our world will be much smarter and the home lives of the Jetson’s and Tom Cruise’s character in the movie "Minority Report" will slowly merge into our daily realities. The handyman of the future will be as much information architect as painter and plumber.

The level of connectivity and flow of information will dwarf what we've become accustomed to. The ubiquity of literally billions of cooperating, Internet enabled peer-to-peer devices will create a tangled but powerful information flow making the idea of an Internet connection irrelevant. Everything from cereal boxes to toilet paper will have circuit in them — the ability to print circuits on paper already exists and the throwaway display is not far off.

As a businessperson what are the implications?

The Internet of things is where the virtual and the physical will become one. If you make something out of atoms, you need to be thinking about how a smart version of your product would exist in the world and how it would be experienced. Technology of some simple sort will be in nearly everything and a part of every experience. If you truly believe that every product or business interaction is an experience, then how can you make your offering simpler, quicker, more enjoyable and amazing through the addition of a microprocessor that can communicate with the world? What else in the world can your offering connect to that will make living life better, easier, more convenient and enjoyable? An ecosystem of devices that can all talk to each other and share information will change the value of your offering. If your product exists in the home environment for example, what other devices should it be talking to?

Just as important is what experiences could you eliminate? Our lives are complicated, time is worth more and more, a company whose device simplifies life wins. Thinking about this may make your head hurt, but the Internet of things is here to stay — how does your business want to play? There isn’t a major company that doesn’t have a connectivity department and strategy — what’s yours?

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Seth Starner is president of the nonprofit NewNorth Center: Innovation in Business in Holland. Most recently, Seth led the Business Innovations Group at Amway Corporation and was responsible for internal innovation training, leading strategic planning sessions and catalyzing innovation teams to implement new opportunities around the globe. Prior to his decade of innovation experience at Amway, Starner was project director at Wirthlin Worldwide, a global market research firm. Starner has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design. Across West Michigan, he serves on the boards of the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Keller Futures Center. Starner was also one of the drivers of GRid70 in downtown Grand Rapids.  Contact him at seth at newnorthcenter dot org or visit NewNorth Center on Facebook and Twitter.