A lot has been said and written about the Internet of Everything (IoE), but it took Cisco's adoption of the term late last year to push it into mainstream consciousness. The term has been around some seven years - in his personal blog in 2006, Lightning Laboratories founder Gene Becker was probably the first to point out its inevitability and Qualcomm has been pushing it hard since April 2009. Although a fairly unscientific measure, some Google searches give a view of the term's association with major industry players, with IBM, Ericsson, Cisco, General Electric, Amazon and Qualcomm coming high up in the search results.
It was Cisco that grabbed the headlines by putting a 'value at stak' on the IoE of $14.4 trillion over the next 10 years for global private-sector businesses. Value at stake means the new value created plus value that migrates from companies that lag to those that take advantage of innovations, less the cost of implementation. It doesn't take into account the losses of the laggards, nor does it include consumer or public sector gains. It reckons that global corporate profitability could be boosted by 21 percent in aggregate during this period, which is one heck of a sprat to catch the business mackerel. The question is, is this just hype to refresh the Cisco brand, or could there be something in it?
We already have plenty of internets and intranets based on the Internet of Things and its subset, machine-to-machine (M2M). The IoE blends these with the most visible internet of all - the internet of people, their devices and their clouds of personal data. Many of the new services and opportunities will be those that directly touch people's lives. It is about getting many of the elements of the entire internet to combine in innovative ways to deliver new value. That value includes societal and consumer benefits, which will complement Ciscoâ€™s cold commercial calculations.
The oft-quoted example of deals popping up on your smartphone as you walk through a shopping mall suggest what can be done already but with the IoE these offers could be absolutely specific and tailored to your interests. How? By picking up details about you from your phone or your credit cards, figuring out your interests - perhaps by studying your spending patterns or looking at your profiles on social networking sites - and quickly grabbing your attention with a perfectly tailored offer. Just imagine the privacy, security and interoperability issues involved in that little scenario...
In simple terms, the IoE is the blending of information about people, places and things to deliver new value to individuals, communities or organisations. Internet-linked sensors send information about themselves or their environment to apps and databases for analysis. This could trigger requests for further information from other apps. Finally, commands are fired, either automatically or by humans, at an actuating device. This could be a valve, a screen, an automated phone call or anything else that can be activated with a digital signal. Many presently mute 'things' will gain a voice - domestic white goods, pallets, buses, clothing, pharmaceuticals and drains, for example- and some of them will be able to listen and act as well.
What can it be used for?
Whatever uses we can think of for IoE now will be only a tiny fraction of what will actually happen. Cast your mind back to the internet of the mid-90s: could you have foreseen what's happened since? The internet has penetrated every nook and cranny of life from secure, automated big business transactions right down to the nursery, where kids think nothing of videoconferencing with Granny using an iPad.
Individuals will get much of the new value courtesy of their mobile phones - effectively noticeboards for highly relevant information and a control panel for manipulating other devices in their lives.
According to Cisco, the major gains for business will come from five main areas: supply chain and logistics; customer experience; asset utilisation; employee productivity; and innovation - each contributing at least $2.5 trillion to its headline figure.
Some IoE applications that touch on the individual:
Cars and driving: This utilisation touches on machine-to-machine communications, as your car could report ailing components to the service department which could suggest you come in for a repair and acts as a way of increasing customer loyalty through trust.
Cars communicating with each other and with roadside furniture is another use under development. Some people believe that driverless cars will be safer, and while this is all very well if the software is bug-free and a car remains within network range, but it wouldn't be so good if the passengers were all asleep and something went wrong: a software bug would make a poor excuse in the event of a fatal accident.
On a more positive note, your IoE-linked satnav could pick up local traffic conditions and automatically reroute you, or it could trigger your household systems to turn the heat up or start cooking a meal as soon as you are so many minutes from home.
Body sensors: Companies like ARM are designing low-power chips as small as one square millimetre in size that makes them ideal for incorporating in body sensors, either stuck to the skin or fixed into clothing. They can monitor the vital signs of patients as they go about their daily lives. This might be of use in healthcare, where thereâ€™s no need to be an expensive in-patient or to visit doctors for routine checkups, as the hospital knows all about patientsâ€™ current conditions and will call them in if necessary.
With GPS tracking incorporated, families and care home staff could be alerted and shown a map when dementia sufferers move beyond their safe zones. Such location sensors could be added to almost anything movable, from office equipment to collars for the more adventurous dogs might be a priority for some.
Athletes and other fitness-conscious people will benefit from storing their body's information in a database where they can profile their progress over time, compare themselves with others and maybe spot correlations between performance and other lifestyle activities.
Community: How would you like to be able to learn all about the local area when you were in an unfamiliar town? In various New York City locations, information about events, walking tours, shops, entertainment, and so on are being delivered in the language of choice to kiosks and smartphones by City 24/7
(www.smartcity24x7.com). Sensors can also be used to direct police and fire department resources to exactly where theyâ€™re needed. The aim is to revitalise these areas through increased commerce, investment and tourism.
Shopping: Your smartphone could, in theory, transform your supermarket shopping experiences. Everything you buy could have an electronic tag that gives information about the product and could possibly make personalised offers to your mobile phone. When you've finished shopping, you simply push your cart through the checkout area where all the signals from the tags on the goods are blended with your offer history and the bill paid through your phone as long as it's within range of a Near Field Communication (NFC) scanner. Such convenience would be very attractive to shoppers and would bring them flocking, providing they could still get an internet connection when they were deep within the bowels of the store.
Wearable computers: Google Glass is the new poster child for wearable computers. The headset consists of a little prism mounted in a spectacle frame. By looking up and to the right you can see a computer display â€“ apparently it lookg great when running a mapping application but you can also summon up web pages by speaking to it, and you can take photographs and record movies, with sound, of everything around you â€“ all of which is stored on Google servers. At the moment, storage is temporary but what if that changes? Who knows what Google could do, or be forced to do, with this stored information matched with, technologies like facial recognition?
Some cafe's have already banned the headsets because of their intrusiveness - there's no tell-tale red light or camera clicking sound on the units - and theatres and cinemas are concerned about copyright theft. Developers of apps are expected to make the most of the user interface of voice commands, touchpad and a button. One company, Roundarch Isobar, has already invented a wink sensor, called Winky.
Barriers to IoE adoption
The number-one question has to be whether there is a commercial case for considering an IoE-related development. If you can't make a decent business case, and regulatory bodies aren't twisting your arm to do something, then wait until you can. But do keep a close eye on developments. The network effect will ensure that change will come quickly once the IoE connections start to spread.
Bear in mind that the IoE can't even begin to work properly unless some open standards emerge for communication between applications and devices. Without agreed international standards we're largely stuck.
Organisations will continue to build proprietary, and very useful, applications that seem to be part of the IoE but, without openness, they aren't going to benefit from others information nor others from theirs. If you need a sense of what's going on in the standards area, Oasis (see www.oasis-open.org/) is not a bad starting point, and Web of Things (www.webofthings.org/about) is another. Not unreasonably, they believe we should build on the HTTP standards we have already, rather than building new ones from scratch.
The next major issues will be security, closely followed by privacy. Again, if confidential information cannot be transported securely then IoE is a non-starter. Huge issues lie around who can see what information. Is the data generated organisational or personal? Who owns the data if someone's driving habits are captured and sent across the internet, for instance? Data may be destined for the car manufacturer but what if a court, the police or an insurance company want to see it? We know from social media that people will forego some of their privacy in exchange for benefits - location-based offers, for example - but these arrangements have to be agreed explicitly.
The IoE has the potential to generate massive amounts of data. Where should it be stored and processed?
From any perspective, the nearer the edge of the network the better - there's no point having masses of data traversing the internet when an analysed subset is all you need. Much depends on the location of sources of data and how this needs to be blended and analysed. Decisions about how data is propagated and how it is harvested are central to your departmentâ€™s role.
Finally, assuming you've figured out everything else, you will need to ask whether your organisation's business processes will be affected by the changes? You will need to maintain very close relationships with every department because they will all be touched by the IoE to some extent. Whether operational or cultural, someone needs to plan for these changes and that someone might best be you.
The Internet of Everything is literally that - the internet of information, places, things, people and virtual entities - and CIOs should consider each aspect of the IoE separately while not losing sight of the whole. We experienced a parallel a few years ago, as when we started discussing the cloud, we also had to focus in on the component parts SaaS, PaaS and IaaS.
Perhaps we should leave the last word with the man who first suggested the Internet of Everything, Gene Becker. Having run through all the interconnections between the physical and digital worlds and having coined IoE, he then had second thoughts and said, "Everything is logically implied and we might just as well call it the Internet."? He then added a smiley, perhaps knowing full well that IoE would make a far better marketing hook.