Internet of Things or Islands of Things?

The Internet opened up the ability for anyone to communicate with anyone else on the planet. It created a level playing field for the distribution of information. That is why it has been successful. The Internet of Things was expected to do the same for “Smart Devices”. Instead, what we have today is a small number of isolated, proprietary, flat, cloud centered IOT ecosystems, or “Islands of Things”, that put a vast amount of knowledge and power in the hands of a tiny number of people.

At the heart of IOT is the idea of an open network of smart objects that can collaborate with any other object irrespective of location. Today’s Islands of Things simply do not do that. They generally treat the objects as “dumb” sensors or actuators with most of the intelligence and knowledge being concentrated in the cloud, AKA someone else’s computer.

Smart Objects must be able to operate autonomously even if the cloud or Internet is unavailable. They need to be smart enough to locally optimize their behavior. A pet feeder that does not work when a cloud server is down is unacceptable. A power station that is remotely controlled must be smart enough to be fail-safe even when under Internet attack. This requires that data and intelligence be distributed not centralized.

If the current trend continues, we will end up with a huge concentration of power probably in the hands of “the four horsemen of the Internet”: Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon (“AGFA”). Innovation will be stifled and this will give them, and in some parts of the world, governments, huge power over not just the people but over every other business.

We have Islands of Things because of the way high tech innovation is funded. Everyone is looking for the next “unicorn” and the only way to do that is to create monopolies that lock users into closed ecosystems, vacuuming up all the data from the objects for the benefit of the company controlling the ecosystem. There would probably never had been the Internet if it had to be funded the way innovation is funded today. Other funding models have to be used for a true Internet of Things. There is a window of opportunity to do this because many major businesses will suffer if a few players end up winning the IOT “Cloud Wars”. They will have to fight back with distributed, collaborative, open systems to survive.

The ability to collaborate independently of location does not mean that any object should be allowed to talk to any other object. I don’t want my washing machine to talk to other washing machines without my permission. The key concept here is object ownership. If I own an object, I get to decide who it talks to or who can control it. I also expect layers of control to ensure security and resilience of IOT systems.

The alternative is an Open, Interoperable, Layered, Distributed Internet of Things with no central control. In this approach, intelligence, and data, is distributed throughout the system, controlled by the owners of the objects. The Cloud can provide services but is no longer in control of the IOT. This not only makes the IOT more secure, reliable and resilient but it returns power to the people and businesses who own the devices.

In my next post I will describe such an architecture and then how to implement it.

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