a week in wireless

Exploiting the internet

The Informer enjoyed the company of the great and good of UK telecoms commentary over a glass of wine recently and conversation soon turned to the Internet of Things. There can surely be no greater pleasure in life than arguing the toss over the meaning of a buzzword with a group of like-minded professionals.

We mulled the definition of IoT, debated what the point of it is, agonised over its subdivisions and queried how money is to be made from it. On one level IoT is a logical extrapolation of how the internet has evolved: first military, then PCs, then mobile devices; so it stands to reason it will eventually find its way into everything else – hence the parallel term, Internet of Everything, which is probably more descriptive.

Since it’s considered inevitable that everything will be connected eventually, IoT is merely a name given to an organic process beyond anyone’s control and abstract pontification regarding the point of it is merely that. As ever, it ultimately comes down to how to make money from it and, if the evolution of the internet itself is anything to go by, we are likely at the beginning of a protracted land grab as entrepreneurs and investors salivate over the presumed benefits of being a first mover.

This is where we get to the subdivisions, as the self-annointed seek to carve the nascent market up. “Alright, I’ll take enterprise, you have embedded and we’ll let them worry about devices,” you can imagine the secret cabal of people who actually run the world saying to each other over a fondue in Davos this week.

Some of the most amusing experiments have concerned devices, precisely because nobody’s got a clue what will prove popular. The Informer committed the cardinal IoT faux pas of mentioning the ‘smart fridge’, leading to much exasperation and burying of heads in hands. It is surely a milestone in the evolution of a new market when it starts to acquire its own clichés.

But the smart fridge serves a cautionary purpose: we can all appreciate the novelty of a fridge riddled with sensors that automatically puts an order in with Sainsbury’s as soon as your milk supply starts to dwindle, but following a moment’s reflection we get Terminator-like premonitions of our Fridge going rogue and insisting we east nothing but Quorn for a week and, more importantly, conclude we’d be unlikely to pay for the privilege.

The IoT land-grab also seems to be provoking panicked responses from incumbent tech companies fearful of missing out on the ‘next big thing’. Chip companies are creating entire divisions devoted to it despite not having a Scooby what the hell it is yet. CES each year features ever more bizarre and speculative IoT initiatives that serve primarily to fuel light-hearted Friday tech columns. But some are even looking to legislation to level the playing field in their favour.

BlackBerry CEO John Chen recently wrote a blog in which he urged legislators to extend their discussions on net neutrality – compelling internet providers not to favour one source or type of traffic over another – to apps.

“Unlike BlackBerry, which allows iPhone users to download and use our BBM service, Apple does not allow BlackBerry or Android users to download Apple’s iMessage messaging service,” he lamented. “Netflix, which has forcefully advocated for carrier neutrality, has discriminated against BlackBerry customers by refusing to make its streaming movie service available to them. Many other applications providers similarly offer service only to iPhone and Android users.

“This dynamic has created a two-tiered wireless broadband ecosystem, in which iPhone and Android users are able to access far more content and applications than customers using devices running other operating systems. These are precisely the sort of discriminatory practices that neutrality advocates have criticized at the carrier level.

“Therefore, neutrality must be mandated at the application and content layer if we truly want a free, open and non-discriminatory internet. All wireless broadband customers must have the ability to access any lawful applications and content they choose, and applications/content providers must be prohibited from discriminating based on the customer’s mobile operating system.”

In essence, Chen seems to be asking for it to be made illegal to choose which platforms you want to develop for, which is remarkable. Leaving aside how difficult this would be to enforce, and even if it worked how little effort would be put into compulsory apps, the precedent of using the law to intervene in such an open commercial process is deeply ominous.

Developers don’t produce apps for the BlackBerry platform because not many people use it. Yes, there is a Catch 22 here and it’s hard to gain users without developer support, but from a consumer perspective there are at least two sources of pretty much any mobile app or service they might want.  Comparisons with the net neutrality issue seem at best misguided, not least because the smartphone sector is not regulated and devices are not viewed as utilities, and public comments such as these come over as a sign of understandable desperation.

Anyway, back to the IoT chat, as we debated how to make money from it a certain inevitability became unavoidable: defining a buzzword with another buzzword. Having observed it will be hard to use IoT to create hardware margin and that consumers have come to expect internet services to be free of charge, we concluded one probably source of revenue derived from IoT will be the exponential growth in information we derive about end users. In other words: Big Data. Problem solved – not.

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