Media Perspective: Getting curtains and central heaters to talk is no easy thing

Last week, we talked about "the Internet of Things" - the idea that, soon, many of the ordinary objects in our lives will have a modicum of intelligence and connectivity, and that when they get networked together, all sorts of interesting effects will follow.

This week, I'd like to think about why, as a manufacturer or marketer of everyday consumer stuff, you should care.

First, let's think about how we'll get an Internet of Things. How might it come to pass? Mike Kuniavsky, a brilliant thinker about such things (whose book Smart Things is highly recommended), suggests it might evolve from a LAN of Things. Remember LANs? Local area networks? It was the first stage of computer connectivity: all the machines in your office connected by cables, wired to printers and a server. It introduced lots of usefulness - e-mail, file exchange, shared resources - but without the Wild West-ness of wiring everything to the internet.

It also had the great advantage that your IT department could specify what got attached and what the common protocols and tools would be because, in the early days, it wasn't obvious. There were all sorts of competing systems and philosophies, with various tools sitting on top.

Remember how hard it used to be to get Lotus Notes and MS Office and Mac documents to talk to each other? That's a legacy of those days. The fact that it's a whole lot easier now is, in part, a result of the open internet standards. Every proprietary network has to connect to it and interoperate with it.

We have no similar standards or tools for objects. There are early ideas but nothing agreed. There'll certainly be interaction with the internet but no-one's sure how much else will happen.

Think about the battle raging in your living room and around your plugs. Consider how long Sony speakers and mini-systems refused to support iPods. That's partly because Sony was trying to support the Walkman and partly because, if it builds something incorporating an iPhone charger, it has to get a licence from Apple. That must grate. Or look at how long it's taken for mobile manufacturers to agree on a common charger standard - it eventually took a lot of nudging by the European Union. Then think about who'll have to get involved when your curtains want to talk to your central heating or your milk cartons want to talk to your recycling bin. That's going to be a mess.

That's why there might well be a Domestic Area Network before there's an Internet of Things. And that's why makers of things should begin to think about this stuff. You wouldn't want to be left out of that.

Next week, we'll think about how all this might start to trouble the creative department.


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