Zach Beauvais

Getting Connected

Written by Zach Beauvais

Jan 8, 2009

Originally appeared on Nodalities Blog:

Web 2.0, social networking, cloud computing, SaaS, PaaS, Web 3.0, the Semantic Web, Smart Phones, 3G, wifi, convergence…. the list of buzzwords or memes  goes on—meme being the buzzword for buzzwords.

There is nothing new in a long list of industry buzzwords. However, I think this list is different. It comprises a set of ideas which are each huge and transformative in its own right. The fact that they are all happening more or less at once and are all interconnected should give us serious pause for thought.

Maybe they are better considered as symptoms of some deeper, more fundamental change. It is tempting to focus in on a single symptom and try to understand what that will mean for the future—perhaps even take a risk and build a new business around it. But to focus on a single aspect is to miss the bigger picture. The interaction of several different trends tends to produce serious game-changing disruption. In this climate, it is dangerous to become myopic.

Here is how I would describe the fundamental shift:

“Everything is getting connected.”

Obvious? Just to be sure, let me put it another way: EVERYTHING IS GETTING CONNECTED! And I mean everything. I don’t mean every blog, every piece of software, every web page, every database—those are just pieces of which software people think everything is made. I mean everything in the world outside the computer screen.

Since the birth of the computer we have begun to build open, generalised infrastructures. The PC is an open and generalised infrastructure for digitising, processing and materialising data. We use the keyboard to digitise text, a mouse to digitise a set of hand gestures, monitors and printers to turn the data back into physical reality; and software organises all of these processes. After all, software is nothing more than a set of instructions which affects data. But the key word here is generalised. We have built machines for thousands of years but they have tended to address specific needs. The PC is a generalised infrastructure for interacting with digital representations. We might use it to manage content such as pictures, music or video. We might use it to write a novel or a business plan. We might use it to organise a supply chain between people and organisations, track financial information, and assess and analyse inventories.

A generalised infrastructure can reduce or eliminate huge costs involved in getting a job done: factoring out some fixed costs and affecting the residual marginal costs of the project. Another way of saying this is that generalised, open infrastructures have huge spill-over effects. If I buy a computer equipped with MS Office in order to organise my personal accounts, my accounts have cost me maybe £1,000. But, of course, I can now word-process a business plan at a marginal rate (i.e. my time). I can also play a game, listen to music and  surf the web. That £1,000 actually buys me a generalised piece of infrastructure for a huge range of tasks and functions. I’ll leave further discussion of the economics of the spill-over effects created by generalised infrastructures for another time.

Due to the complex nature of these infrastructures, they work much better together when we can agree on some standards. MS Windows and Intel formed a de facto standard which allowed hardware and software to work well together. This partnership has factored out huge complexity by delivering a set of software instructions and processing power to an end user which enables them to manage their data and content. You may argue how much better the world would have been if this standard had been open rather than proprietary, but the point is that the use is generalised and part of the user’s infrastructure.

The internet was the birth of an open, generalised infrastructure for connecting computers. Following this, standards have made these networks work much better and the World Wide Web has provided a set of open standards which made the job of connecting human-readable documents much easier. So, the web has provided a generalised infrastructure for connecting documents.

Yet the web isn’t limited to connecting human-readable documents. Although it may have come to be thought of as an extension of the PC, it is actually a generalised infrastructure for connecting data: html, mp3, streaming video, xml, rdf—anything in fact. To date, it has mostly been used for html and media content but that is changing rapidly. Connected data is the next logical step and with that we must think of devices and standards.

Take a look at the list of buzzwords again. We are in the process of building a generalised infrastructure for connecting anything to everything. Wifi, 3G and bluetooth allow any electronic device to join the conversation Smart phones ensure the human being is always connected. Thinking about all the digital devices in your life, I expect most of them are currently disconnected. They have to solve all the problems themselves: user interaction achieved through some obscure buttons and a tiny display with odd symbols. They are conceived to be isolated.

But wouldn’t it be much better to program your central heating timer with a nice iPhone app that can react to the fact you have left the office? 10 years ago, it would have been impossibly expensive for a heating manufacturer to build a proprietary system allowing customers remotely to programme and adjust their heating. Now, the generalised infrastructure to connect anything is being built, and the huge fixed-cost barrier is being removed. Adding a wifi connection to the central heating controller and exposing the sensor and input data for third party control is already economically doable.

To illustrate this further, imagine how much more valuable it would be for a mass manufacturer to be a bit more connected with their customers. Why, for example, isn’t there a big red help button on my washing machine I can press to talk directly to customer support? The washing machine would know its own model number and any error codes it may be displaying and how to contact help. This morning, I was looking at my washing machine and wondering how to control the temperature. You have to select a specific programme, and each has a certain temperature; but it also boasts a separate temperature dial. Does this override the temperature of the programme? Does it add this temperature to the programme, and I’ll end up with washing soup? Why can’t I literally press a button on the washing machine and immediately ask someone that question and get an answer?

As a products company, that kind of intimate connection with the actual users of my products could be very valuable. For a start, after getting the same questions from many users, they would undoubtedly redesign the temperature control. If the system malfunctioned, the customer service person could give specific advice for an error code, saving time, complaints and dissatisfied customers. This kind of direct relationship has been impossible up to now. With a generalised infrastructure for connecting everything, however, it becomes practicable.

It would cost very little to put a wifi connection on a washing machine and a little Skype-like piece of software which also relays machine status data. I am sure the question is answered in the printed manual, but I dutifully lost that 5 minutes after opening the box. Further, I would not want to go through the hassle of finding the customer services number, finding the model number then reading all that out to the service staff when the machine itself should know all of that. The difference between the effort of simply pressing a button and having to find and relay all that information is functionally massive.

When you think about it, data and devices are everywhere. But they are not connected and they are dumb: they don’t know each other; they don’t know me; and many can’t even recognise themselves.

Almost by definition, there is vastly more localised personal data in the world than generally useful data. Wikipedia is generally useful, and it’s helpful to be able to access a postcode-to-location database. But when I think about the data that is really important to me, it is practically all localised to me.

I would dearly like to have a record of my blood pressure and heart rate from the past year. I would share it with my doctor and maybe my pharmacy. But as useful as it would be, there is no way I would spend the effort of taking my blood pressure and writing it down to put in a computer. However, I do take my blood pressure at home with a digital gauge. It is a device that knows something about me, but it isn’t connected. My blood pressure, the temperature of my house, the location of my children, miles before a service on my car, the error code on my washing machine, the channels I watch on television, all the local restaurants I have been to in the last year—these are all more valuable to me, my family or my friends than they are generally useful to the world. Just think of the number of people in the world times the personal data relevant to them. I would hazard a guess that it is vastly larger than the generic data in the world.

You can see this effect on Facebook, iff you look at most of what is “published”. It is easy to dismiss Facebook as just being full of useless rubbish. If you do, I expect you have fallen into the trap of thinking that just because something is “published” it is meant for you. In fact, most social network content is not a publication, but a conversation that happens to have been digitised. It is intended and meaningful only to a few. It is the same with data. Most data about what I, my family and friends are doing, the things we have, the places we go and the things we need are localised and personal. They are relevant to the few people, organisations and companies I interact with and I want to choose who gets to know what about me.

Up to this point, connecting the devices and data closest to us has been prohibitively expensive, and only a very few people have ever bothered to gather and use this kind of data in a useful way. As the costs of this technology are driven ever-further down, it is becoming increasingly feasible for anyone to have access to these bits and pieces of their lives in a form which can interact and benefit from the infrastructure we build with our devices, houses, cars and companies.

As EVERYTHING gets connected, it is time to get up close and personal.

Related Articles


Information as a Civil Liberty

Originally appeared on Nodalities Blog: “Free citizens must be able to hold big institutions and powerful individuals to account.” I attended a speech at the Institute for Government by UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at which he...

read more