The connected future promised by the Internet of Things is almost here. Tech research firm Gartner projects that 4.9 billion connected devices will be in use in 2015. And with people like cloud expert John McDonald already adopting the IoT, the rest of the world’s tech leaders need to catch up. Sync speaks with McDonald on the state of the industry, the importance and possibilities of the IoT, and his approach to getting his partners, suppliers, and contractors to embrace these radical shifts in the status quo.
Sync: Has the IoT “arrived”?
John McDonald: We are at the beginning of it now. Some devices today are already providing clues to what the future might be like. Right now we can speak to our phones or video game consoles and they respond. Our computers can download patches and upgrades while we’re sleeping. So we are at the beginning, but the reality of having massive quantities of devices with embedded smart software is still yet to come.
Sync: Gartner is predicting 26 billion connected devices by 2020—what kinds of devices will these be?
McDonald: These new devices will be a generation of electronic equipment with built-in computing power: refrigerators, appliances, medical devices, pumps, generators, and meters. These devices are already electronic, but they lack the “smarts” of computing power. They’ll be used by regular consumers and also by businesses. There’s no border to this concept. Electronic devices capable of being upgraded are nearly universal around the world.
Sync: How will the IoT change everyday life?
McDonald: The role of computers since the beginning has been to augment humans. Computers support humans and give them clues and help in the tasks that they might be able to do without a computer but can do better with one. IoT is just the next extension of that concept; smart devices will continue to learn how to best assist us.
If I’m driving late at night, my vehicle might recognize that I could use a cup of coffee. The car’s computer will be able to look up the nearest Starbucks, place an order for my favorite drink, pay for the purchase, and then direct me via GPS to take the appropriate exit. These are all things that I could do on my own. But the magic is that my car determined the need for me, knew my payment information, knew how to communicate with the cafe’s system, and had the smarts to resolve the problem without any interaction from me. We will begin to see our devices anticipating our needs and acting for us without a need to explicitly direct them.
Sync: That problem-solving ability sounds essential—what’s the connection between artificial intelligence and the IoT?
McDonald: AI is hugely important, as well as the collection of data. We’re now collecting data of every sort imaginable. But all the data in the world has no value unless you can interpret it effectively. So while many people are focusing on the collection of data, it’s really the interpretation of it that holds the value. What does the data tell us? What can we learn? What questions do I need to ask, and then how do I automate those questions?
Sync: What else is necessary to foster a robust IoT?
McDonald: I would add two more things. The first is network connectivity. The Internet being available everywhere all the time is critical for IoT. The other is cloud computing, but actually a specific type: secure cloud computing. The cloud, throughout much of its history—and certainly in public perception—is not unlike a public utility. It’s extremely available and very public. This is appropriate in a lot of spaces, but there are many things we do in business that are not public and cannot be public. Our business at CloudOne is creating extremely secure virtual private clouds that allow companies to isolate and secure the things that must stay private. And even more challenging is dancing the line between what is public and what is private.
McDonald: CloudOne weaves together four elements that are necessary for IoT. The first is data and analytics. We provide secure big-data platforms with analytics that allow us to analyze streams of data and act on them. The second is to provide environments where companies can develop their products for the IoT. We also support companies that are producing devices in a factory context. And lastly, we manage the transmission of the data streams from the devices themselves. It’s analytics and big data at the core, but surrounding it is the development process of the software that goes in the device, the factory that makes the device, and the streams of data going to and from the device. We weave those pieces together in secured virtual private clouds, which manage the transition between public and private and provide managed services and software platforms to do all those tasks.
The Future is Now
Three CloudOne projects helping to kick-start our connected world
1. Cummins is the largest independent diesel-engine manufacturer in the marketplace. Today, every Cummins engine can transmit packets of data with information about engine performance. All that data is hosted and analyzed on a CloudOne virtual private cloud. Cummins can assess performance internally and may also sell that information to the companies utilizing its engines.
2. Panasonic Automotive Systems is the world’s largest manufacturer of vehicle infotainment systems. With a host of component subsuppliers, the true innovation of Panasonic’s product is the software operating on its radio system. CloudOne provides a secure cloud environment for Panasonic’s 1,600 worldwide developers to collaborate globally and drive innovation while protecting proprietary information.
3. The Grindery is a nonprofit business incubator in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana, started by CloudOne. The Grindery is easily accessible by public transit and is tailored to serve low-income residents. “If you have a high- tech idea, it’s easy to get support,” says McDonald. “But if your idea is to provide babysitting services or do sign language interpretation or to open a barbershop, where do you get help?” The Grindery enables underprivileged urban communities to see their ideas come to fruition through access to computers, the Internet, business coaches, and a variety of other resources.
Sync: On the other hand, what are the hurdles along the path to a universal IoT?
McDonald: I’m going to call this the “My Mom” problem. My mom down in Florida has many devices in her house. Some already have some smarts and others will have them very soon. How do we get my mom into a position where she is effectively able to set up and use a variety of in-home devices each with embedded software? Suppose Express Scripts issues her a smart pill container that could track her medicine usage. This would be helpful for her, and provide some peace of mind for me. But unless what she has to do is no more difficult than plugging in a toaster, the chances of her being able to successfully use a smart pill container are nearly zero.
And that is a big problem for the IoT. There are a lot of big companies heavily targeting this exact problem that have already had some success. Nest, a smart thermostat company acquired by Google, is doing this for the home, and Visteon is working to do effectively the same thing for the car.
Another challenge is for the companies that make the devices themselves. Many of the electrical or mechanical engineers who are creating these devices did not go to school to be software or network people, yet now they’re dealing with what are effectively computers. This is slowing some companies down because they don’t necessarily have the proper staff to build these computing devices.
Sync: How exactly will the IoT transform the business landscape?
McDonald: Customer support is at the top of the list. The ability to know how customers are using your products and to anticipate their needs will be crucial. The doorbell rings and there’s a man—or drone—with a box. Inside the box is a set of hoses that your clothes washer needs, so it ordered them for you. That has now kept your house from flooding and made you very happy that you chose that particular brand because they anticipated your needs. It builds loyalty.
Sync: What IoT device or capability are you most excited to see and put to use in your life?
McDonald: At CloudOne we are consumers of all kinds of products and services, from soda pop in the refrigerator to pens, paper, toner, and computers. Of course, we have to keep all those items stocked. My refrigerator should know who is drinking what and when, and when something is almost empty it should order more soda. I’m excited about outsourcing some of the most mundane tasks that take up the time of the people at CloudOne so they can focus on things of higher value. The Internet of Things, at its heart, is a system through which our devices become even better at freeing us up from drudgery. I love that world. I want to live in that world right now.