Friday, August 22, 2014

The IoT - Building Jacob’s Ladder

your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions. – Old Testament, Book of Joel, 2:28.

Dreams have long had a potent grip on the destinies of people, tribes and cultures. The influence of dreams has had such a determining factor on the lives of men that over the course of time their occurrence and interpretation has been given religious significance, with the dreamer said to have visited the spirit world or been directly touched by the divine (either as blessing or curse.) The Greeks described three “Oneiroi” bringing dreams to men as warnings, prophecies or inspirations to follow courses of action desired by the Gods of Olympus. The Old and New Testaments are replete with divine revelations sent as visions by God to his chosen prophets. As a startling contrast, the ancient texts of the Upanishads offer a timelessly sage and insightful interpretation of the meaning of dreams as the analogue of desires, longings or fears of the individual dreamer.

The High Technology industry has been built and shaped by people inspired by very powerful dreams – individuals intrigued by possibilities, their intellects captured by visions of a better tomorrow. The preeminent vision in High Tech today, one that is generating churn in the trade press and starry-eyed speculation among its corporate and individual participants, is the Internet of Things (IoT) - a mystical concept where all of human civilization, its endeavors and objects are incorporated into and controlled thru the World Wide Web.

This is a vast topic to tackle and will be discussed in depth thru a plethora of blog installments over the rest of the year. Along the way I’ll dissect both business and technical issues in order to attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff so as to discern what is or isn’t real and what truly matters. In this opening article to the series, I’ll provide a framework from which the IoT will be further explored and analyzed.


Imagine a world where every instrument, machine, appliance and device you own has its own IP address that you can access remotely. While at work, you use your smartphone, tablet, Google Glass or some other apparatus not invented yet as a kind of portable ‘personal processor’ to digitally sign off on a package delivered to your home. At the end of the workday, you walk up to your car in the parking lot, knowing that your personal processor will tie into the car’s control network to deactivate the alarm, unlock the door and engage the ignition sequence when you arrive within 30 feet of the automobile. Entering ‘Trader Joe’s’ on your processor, the vehicle ties into the local traffic management grid and chauffeurs you to your favorite supermarket. You stop for groceries and, consulting your ‘PP’, look over a shopping list automatically generated by a history of your buying habits supplemented by a realtime feed from your refrigerator, which keeps a running inventory stock of your foodstuffs. Your PP functions as a scanner so that as you pick up grocery items and pass the PP over them, the purchase is wirelessly communicated to the store and your credit card account is debited. As you re-enter your vehicle and enter ‘Home’ into the car’s navigation system thru your PP, you instruct your security system, several lamps, the stereo and oven to turn on based on the activation of your automatic garage door mechanism, which opens automatically subject to a protocol established between your PP and the garage door controller that commences when you are within 90 feet of your driveway.

Once at home, you empty your groceries into a cooking pan and put the pan into your pre-heated oven. You insert the oven’s sensor array into the dish to monitor temperature, humidity, pH and viscosity, with the data captured and automatically sent to your PP for comparison against parameters delineated in a stored recipe. Since you have 45 minutes to spare before dinner is ready (and your PP will turn the oven off automatically should your mix of ingredients reach cooking completion before that), you change into your exercise outfit and go for a quick jog around the neighborhood. As part of your outfit, you carry the PP to automatically control your home security and door locks, as well as a wearable device that functions as a pulse oximeter, pedometer & calorie counter. The wearable captures data and wirelessly sends it to your PP, which in turn collates the telemetry and compares it to a predetermined training calendar while automatically displaying a GPS map of your route.

When you return home, you use your PP to turn on your shower so that it’s pre-heated to a preferred temperature while you are removing the cooking pan from the oven so the meal cools off a bit. After showering, you grab your dish, sit in front of the entertainment console, use your PP to configure it to display a stock ticker RSS feed, skype, your facebook page, email, twitter page and a cable news program and interact with all of it while you dine.

All That Glitters

For some, the above is a wondrous fantasy, a digitized world of the future that puts anything imagined in Star Trek or The Jetsons to shame. If one could quantify all of that electronic wizardry in terms of the equivalent output of human labor, an individual in command of such personal resources would make the most extravagant Roman Emperor with a legion of slaves on his family’s latifundia look like a pauper. Indeed, such capabilities would make someone a quasi-deity of his own personal digital universe. But how much of this is real or even desirable, and how much is just a bunch of nonsense that only a Wall Street financier could be dumb enough to believe in during a pitch by a startup for seed money?

I believe it to be true that Dreams are the true Interpreters of our Inclinations; but there is Art required to sort and understand them. - Montaigne

As intriguing as the above scenario may be (especially to the most avid technophiles), it would be useful to dissect the entire concept and examine what we discover from the exercise. Starting with the simplest item first – the activity tracker used in the exercise interval – raises some immediate questions about such products that are branded as IoT devices. The wearable instrument’s main purpose is to gather data and wirelessly relay it to the PP. Stated differently, it’s a set of sensors integrated with some control logic, a PHY, RF and antenna, with a little bit of RAM sprinkled in. As such, can this really be considered an important constituent of the IoT, or is it just an accessory for a segment of smartphone owners?

Let me be blunt: if a storm of similar molded plastic gadgets and doodads is what evangelists of the IoT are thinking of as the wave of the future, it’s pretty pathetic. Such devices will also be a dubious proposition as a business pursuit, since the gross margins on such electronic widgets are liable to be so awful that they’ll make transistor radios look comparatively lucrative.

Let’s scale the analysis up from the individual to their fully digital home. If we were to add voice recognition, an advanced AI and an array of proximity sensors to the mix, the control that person would have over their environment would be perceived as nearly God-like by their great-grandparents. But for all of this to work, every item needs to be tied into the control software of the PP.

There are those who argue that the wireless and wired infrastructure already exists to support widespread network demand of this sort. The proliferation of fiber and the steady migration of all wireless protocols towards coverage under an all-encompassing LTE circus tent suggest that the capacity for such needs is being anticipated in some circles. The fact that IPv6 will theoretically support 340 TRILLION individual IP addresses further bolsters this readiness postulate. But there is one rather major snag to all this: who, exactly, is going to expend the time, cost and effort to develop a board with an 8b MCU, timer, memory, random logic, antenna, PHY & RF and then insert it into a lamp or light switch?

To be fair, not all of the anticipated activities and functions of the IoT are for trivial things such as controlling light bulbs. The communication and data chain between the PP and the ‘smart’ refrigerator during the grocery shopping interval present Big Data opportunities and challenges. Packaged goods companies are quite naturally salivating at the prospects of having such intimate access to consumer buying and consumption patterns & histories, while systems companies and their chip suppliers are anticipating an explosion of demand for switches, aggregators, routers, gateways, hubs, storage & data servers and both network & server virtualization software. To put it another way, there are those who believe the proclamation that the current internet infrastructure and supported wireless bandwidth spectrum are already sufficient to handle the IoT is wrong, and that their own hardware and software businesses will benefit from IoT-instigated service demands.

Some systems companies are aggressively touting IoT as the major driving force in their future growth prospects. Ericsson is forecasting 100B IoT-based processors to ship between 2013 and 2020, while Cisco touts the IoT market as an aggregate $14.4T opportunity between 2013 and 2022. Though all of us in the world of High Tech understandably look forward to such excellent growth possibilities, the financial performance of benchmark networking and server systems houses suggest that this new industry expansion has not manifested itself up to this point (see the earlier blog post regarding the “Big Iron” firms - .) If and when this anticipated IoT wave does hit, the positive business effects will spread beyond the systems houses for networking, servers & storage to backhaul, ISPs, carriers, SaaS companies, the Cloud, database firms and even eCommerce. One could easily envision an IoT growth spurt lifting the entire global economy. But the simple truth is we haven’t seen any signs of it – at least not yet.

A severely negative aspect to all of these IoT-associated capabilities concerns privacy. Consider the fact that everything in the above example of a citizen living their life in an IoT world – at work, travelling to various locations by car, shopping, turning on television channels or lights or the oven, etc etc…. – is all tagged with an IP address and a time stamp. In other words, there is a detailed record of everything this person is doing during the course of a day that is being stored on a server somewhere. Personally I find this sort of visibility into someone’s life to be a profoundly repulsive feature of the IoT. Violating individual privacy thru such means should be controlled thru statutory measures which, if violated, should carry heinous criminal penalties and require ridiculous hurdles to be overcome before governmental violations of such digital privacy could be officially permitted.

Finally, there is one thing missing from the current conception of the IoT – a glaring deficiency that attracts attention to itself by its very absence: What is the “killer app”? Is there some sort of combination of hardware and software functionality that could energize the market in the same way that smartphones and tablets have with mobile computing? The answer is not a straightforward Yes or No, and there are complexities to the identification and deployment of such a market-igniting invention. What that solution might be and what its deployment and utilization issues are is, however, a topic for a future editorial. ;-)

Special thanks to Cary Snyder at M.2 Labs for his advice and inputs on this topic.