Friday, August 29, 2014

The IoT - Daedalus and Icarus

Source: Wikipedia

A millennium or more before the classical age in Greece, the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean were dominated by a seafaring people known to us as the Minoans. The legend of Theseus the Athenian and his struggle in the labyrinth with the Minotaur - the monstrous half-man, half-bull that devoured sacrificial victims for King Minos (the infamous monarch with the golden touch) - is an allegorical tale that circulated among the ancient Greeks as a distorted version of events handed down orally over dozens of generations concerning the unrecorded history of their pre-classical era, known to us as the Homeric Age.

Another myth that originated in those distant times is that of Daedalus and his son Icarus. Daedalus was reputed to be the designer of the labyrinth of Minos, and was imprisoned within it along with his son after Theseus slew the Minotaur and freed Athens from Minoan hegemony. In order to escape his confinement, the ever inventive and ingenious Daedalus constructed two pairs of wings from wax and bird feathers – one set each for himself and his son.

Daedalus had considered his task carefully and understood the strengths and weaknesses of his solution for the purpose at hand. When they donned their wings, both men found themselves able to fly quite easily - a testament to the brilliance of Daedalus, who had achieved complete success with his first untested prototype. Imagine the spectacular career Daedalus would have in Silicon Valley today if he were an analog circuit designer… ;-)

However, before flying from the labyrinth to make their escape, Daedalus warned his son not to fly either too close to the water or too high in the sky. Nonetheless, a combination of overconfidence, youthful exuberance and willful ignorance overcame Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and then fell from the sky with melted wings.

Writers throughout the history of Western literature have treated the myth as a cautionary allegory regarding the dangers of overreaching ambition and hubris. There are Babylonian, Indian, Chinese and other myths with similar story lines, demonstrating the universality of the main themes of the tale.

Why does this motif resonate over such a disparate array of historical periods and cultures? Its universality stems from the unspoken words of wisdom serving as subconscious background to the story – the understanding that though Man can achieve wondrous things, his reach is not infinite. The will of men whose egos are inflated by lack of reflection or vanity is readily thwarted by the shock of impact with cold, hard reality.

The success of Daedalus ultimately flowed from his humility. Daedalus did not shrink from difficult problems or obstacles. He grappled with very formidable ones indeed, but did not count on luck, brute force, the emotions of the moment or the capricious favor of the gods.

Thru force of intellect, he overcame the predicament of escaping from confinement by capturing both problem and solution in complete detail, carefully weighing all the variables – altitude, humidity, temperature, flight path, the properties of his materials and so forth – and basing his design on these factors as boundary conditions to his plan of escape. Stated differently, Daedalus confronted his dilemma squarely and dealt with it thoughtfully, honestly and thoroughly, bringing all his skills, knowledge and experience to bear. Icarus, on the other hand, though equipped with the exact same solution as his father and already forewarned of the dangers ahead, willfully disregarded the wise course and rashly soared thru the skies to meet his doom.

You may at this point be asking, “Have you completely lost it, baldie? Been out in the sun too long yourself? What on earth does all this have to do with the IoT?”

The lessons of this myth are, in fact, central to comprehending what it will take to be ultimately successful in the nascent IoT market. We can come to a better understanding of this by examining an IoT device which originated from a wonderfully inventive, strategically insightful and wildly successful High Technology company that is now, paradoxically, the embarassed parent of what is to date the most notoriously infamous disaster of a product launch in the IoT space.

The Ballad of Google Glass

Glass was released only in April of this year but has already had a profound impact on public perception of Google – almost all of it profoundly negative. The reception of Glass was disappointing and even shocking, not only to market observers but to Google itself – a very adventurous and successful company that seems destined over time to make a mark on technology no less profound than that of IBM or Apple.

Google has gone to great lengths to make Glass a highly functional and useful device for consumers. It’s clear that the Google X team strove to make the appeal not about technical features and specifications, but about what the product could do for its purchasers. There are applications for travel, exercise, news feeds, video capture & playback and accessing email. The device can be voice activated or thru a swipe mechanism. Glass can access the internet using WiFi and also supports Bluetooth. Further application development has been opened to the 3rd party community. Glass has already been used for various military, law enforcement, media and medical applications. Google has even attempted to position Glass as a fashion accessory by offering frame style and color options directly and thru 3rd parties.

In general, pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes. - John Ruskin

So what’s not to like? Well, for one thing, the retail price when released last April was about $1500. Newer versions with more features seem to be selling in a range between $1800 and $2000. At these prices, Glass will find a home only with consumers who consider such expenditures to be trivial. For Google to turn this into a mass market product like smartphones, they will need to drop prices by at least 66% immediately and more in the long term.

The fatal flaw in Glass, however, is more easily understood from reactions to users who were out and about in public places over the last several months. Wearers in several San Francisco bars and restaurants have been compelled to remove their device before being granted permission to enter. Others were peremptorily kicked out of venues and on occasion even physically assaulted. Complaints against users focus on their ability to photograph or record public events and activities without explicit permission.

To some, this may seem a bit silly – after all, capturing photos and videos can be done with smartphones, and nobody gets kicked out of a public venue just because they have one. Yet when one sees smartphone videos posted on social media sites, the videos are often taken among a group of friends or family members. When they aren’t, it’s common to see people react with hostility to being surreptitiously recorded – especially the police (which is worrisome in its own right, but is a topic that is outside the scope of this discussion.)

This is the key to understanding the failure of Glass to catch on in the marketplace and experience the same fiery growth as smartphones. Just as Daedalus knew his wings would work properly within a ‘flight envelope’ of various environmental factors, he also comprehended what would happen should he violate those boundary conditions. By failing to adequately capture the boundary conditions of Glass and considering that there could be downsides to its deployment and use, Google failed to intuit the obtrusiveness of a sophisticated IoT device which was physically positioned to capture the goings-on of everyone and everything in its immediate vicinity.

As an example, notice how the dissemination of traffic monitoring cameras stationed at intersections in large metropolitan areas by local police departments provoked an angry public backlash, forcing their removal from several of these cities. The ubiquity of devices that could be used for clandestine surveillance gives rise to a visceral reaction on the part of most people – the instinctive feeling that one is possibly being stalked or hunted. A device as conspicuous as Glass was fated to invite comparisons to Orwell’s Big Brother and was bound to set off fireworks stemming from a perceived violation of privacy.

To characterize the public reaction as extreme and irrational would be a shallow conclusion. Video cameras affixed in banks or ATMs have become a normal and accepted part of everyday life, as the security concerns for such locations are widely perceived as justified and reasonable. Furthermore, when one leaves the bank or ATM, the cameras are also left behind as people go off and pursue their personal affairs, ameliorating any discomfort some individuals might occasionally experience. But not so with the “all-seeing eye” of Glass, which can be found potentially anywhere at any time and could conceivably be used to covertly track people, make a record of their activities and follow them around.

There is no question that the Google X team has executed some very impressive engineering work in creating a device with so much advanced functionality in such a small and light form factor. Nevertheless, in blithely assuming that the public would become instantly enamored with their technology and unreservedly embrace all its features and capabilities – even to the point of trying to position it as a potential fashion accessory - the Google X team fell into the same error in judgement made by Icarus in believing he could soar amongst and above the clouds, lauding himself in his newfound ability to fly, without any consequences following upon himself. Such an unbridled display of pride in one’s own abilities and achievements invites a visit from the ancient spirit of retribution that the greeks called Nemesis, sent by the Gods to punish mortals for displays of hubris.


Instead of instantly becoming the “killer app” of the IoT, Glass broke new ground only in regards to public concerns over technology and its potential for conflict with the basic right of privacy. Does this mean Glass is DOA? Not at all. Much about it is prescient and could easily lead to Glass branching into a profusion of product variants and market niches – in effect, a whole smorgasbord of “killer apps” for individual applications and market segments emerging in a fractal proliferation.

How could Glass recover from its disastrous launch and reposition itself for such success, and what does this mean to other IoT developers and their ideas? That, dear reader, is the subject of next week's post. :-)

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