Who Will Own the Internet of Things?

Tribrid_CarYesterday’s blog talked about the current Internet that is falling under the control of a handful of large corporations – Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. This leads me to ask if the upcoming Internet of Things is also going to be owned by a handful of companies

This is not an idle question because it has become clear lately that you don’t necessarily own a connected device even though you might pay for it. As an example, there was recently an article in the New York Times that reported that a car company was able to disable cars for which the owners were late in making payments. The idea of Ford or General Motors still having access to the brains of your vehicle even after you buy it is unsettling. It’s even more unsettling to think access is in the hands of somebody at your local car dealer. Imagine them turning off your car when you are far away from home or when you have a car full of kids. But even far worse to me is that if somebody can turn off your car then somebody else can hack it

The car companies are able to do this because they maintain access to the root directory of your car’s computer system. Whether you financed the car with them or paid cash, they still maintain a backdoor that lets them get remotely into your car’s computer. They might use this backdoor to disable the vehicle as in this example or to download software upgrades. But the fact is, as long as they have that ability, then to some degree they still have some control over your car and you. You have to ask if you truly own your own car. As an aside, most people don’t realize that almost all cars today also contain a black box, much like the recorder in airplanes that records a lot of data about your car and your specific driving habits. It records data on how fast you drive or if you are wearing your seatbelt – and this data is available to the car companies

Perhaps the car is an extreme example because car is probably the most complicated device that you own. But it’s likely that every IoT device is going to have the same backdoor access to the root directory. This means that the company that made an IoT device is going to have a way to gain access. This means every smartphone, appliance, thermostat, door lock, burglar alarm and security camera can be controlled to some degree by somebody else. It makes you seriously ask the question if you entirely own any smart device

Over time it is likely that the IoT industry will consolidate and that there will be a handful of companies that control the vast majority of IoT devices just like the big five companies control a lot of the Internet. And it might even be the same companies. Certainly Apple, Google and Microsoft are all making a big play for the IoT

I’ve written before about the lack of security in a most IoT devices. My prediction is that it’s going to take a few spectacular failures and security breaches of IoT devices before the companies that make them pay real attention to security. But even should they tighten up every security breach, if Google or Apple maintains backdoor access to your devices, then they are not truly secure

I think that eventually there will be a market for devices that a buyer con control and that don’t keep backdoor access. It certainly would be possible to set up an IoT network that doesn’t communicate outside the home but where devices all report to a master controller within the home. But it’s going to take people asking for such devices to create the market for them

If people are happy to have Apple or Google spy on them in their homes then those companies will be glad to do it. One of the first things that crossed my mind when Google bought Nest was that Google was going to be able to start tracking a lot of behavior about people inside their homes. They will know when you wake and sleep and how you move around the home. That may not sound important to you, but every smart device you add to your house will report something else about you. With the way that the big companies mine big data, the more they know about you the better they can profile you and the easier it is for them to sell to you. I don’t really want Google to know my sleep habits and when I go to the bathroom. To be truthful, it sounds creepy.

Do the Cloud Guys Get It?

English: Cloud Computing Image

English: Cloud Computing Image (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just read an article this week that cites five reasons why cloud computing isn’t taking off as fast as the companies selling the solution were hoping for. The reasons unfortunately make me feel like the cloud industry folks are out of touch with the real world. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in that high-tech industries are run by innovators. Innovators often don’t understand why the rest of the world doesn’t see things with the same clarity as they do.

Following are the five reasons cited in the article about why cloud computing is not selling as fast as hoped, with my observations after each point.

The Organization. Organizations often are structured in a way that does not make the kind of shift to cloud easy. For instance, IT shops are often organized into separate groups for compute, network and storage.

Changes that affect people are never easy for companies. Going to the cloud is supposed to save a lot of labor costs for larger companies, but that is not necessarily the case for smaller companies.  But even larger companies are going to take a while to make sure they are not walking off a cliff. Every old-timer like me remembers a few examples of where major technology conversions went poorly, and nobody wants to be the one blamed if a big conversion goes wrong.

Security. Companies are afraid that the cloud is not going to be as safe as keeping all of their data in-house.

Everything I have read says that if done right that the cloud can be very secure. However, the fear is that not every conversion is going to be done right. You can place your bets with me now, but sometime in the next year or two there is going to be a major ugly headline about a company that converted to the cloud poorly which led to a major breach of customer records. The problem is that everybody is human and not every cloud company is going to do every conversion perfectly.

Legacy Applications. Cloud companies want you to get rid of legacy systems and upgrade to applications made for the cloud.

This is where cloud companies just don’t get it. First, almost every company uses a few legacy systems that are not upgradable and for which there is no cloud equivalent. Every industry has some quirky homegrown programs and applications that are important for their core business. When you tell a company to kill every legacy application most of them are going to rightfully be scared this is going to create more problems than it solves.

Second, nobody wants to be automatically upgraded with the latest and greatest software. It’s a company nightmare to come in on a Monday and find out that the cloud provider has upgraded everybody to some new Microsoft version of Office that is full of bugs and that everybody hates and that brings productivity to a halt. Companies keep legacy systems because they work. I recently wrote about the huge number of computers still running on Windows XP. That is how the real world works.

Legacy Processes. In addition to legacy software, companies have many legacy processes that they don’t want to change.

Honestly this is arrogant. Companies buy software to make what they do easier. To think that you need to change all of your processes to match the software is really amazingly out of touch with what most companies are looking for. Where a cloud salesman sees ‘legacy system’ most companies see something that works well and that they took years to get the way they want it.

Regulatory Compliance. Companies are worried that the cloud is going to violate regulatory requirements. This is especially true for industries such as financial, health and the power industries.  

This is obviously a case-by-case issue, but if you are in one of the heavily regulated industries then this has to be a significant concern.

I hope this doesn’t make me sound anti-cloud, because I am not. But I completely understand why many companies are going to take their time considering this kind of huge change. There is no product ever made that should not be taking their customers into consideration. When I see articles like this I feel annoyed, because the gist of the article is, “Why won’t these dumb customers see that what I have is good for them”. That is never a good way to get people to buy what you are selling.

Hello Siri . . .

Image representing Siri as depicted in CrunchBase

Image by None via CrunchBase

Gartner, a leading research firm, issued a list of the ten top strategic technology trends for 2014. By strategic they mean that these are developments that are getting a lot of attention and development in the industry, not necessarily that these developments will come to full fruition in 2014. One of the items on the list was ‘smart machines’ and under that category they included self-driving cars, smart advisors like IBM’s Watson and advanced global industrial systems, which are automated factories.

But I want to look at the other item on their list which is contextually aware intelligent personal assistants. This essentially will be Apple’s Siri on steroids. This is expected to be done at first mostly using cell phones or other mobile device. Eventually one would think that this will migrate towards something like Google Glass, a smart phone, a bracelet or some other way to have this always on you.

Probably the key part of the descriptive phrase is contextual. To be useful, a person’s personal assistant has to learn and understand the way they talk and live in order to become completely personalized to them. By contextual, the current Siri needs to grow to learn things by observation. To be the life-changing assistant envisioned by Gartner is going to require software that can learn to anticipate what you want. For example, as you are talking to a certain person your assistant ought to be able to pick out of the conversation those bits and pieces that you are going to want it to remember. For example, somebody may tell you their favorite restaurant or favorite beer and you would want your assistant to remember that without you telling it to do so.

Both Apple and Microsoft’s current personal assistants have already taken the first big step in the process in that they are able to converse some in conversation language mode. Compare what today’s assistants can already do to Google’s search engine, which makes you type in awkward phrases. Any assistant is going to have to be able to be completely fluent in a person’s language.

One can easily envision a personal assistant for life that helps you learn when you are young and who then sticks with you for life. Such an assistant will literally become the most important ‘person’ in somebody’s life. An effective assistant can free a person from many of the mundane tasks of life. You will never get lost, have to make an appointment, remember somebody’s birthday or do many of the routine things that are part of life today. A good assistant will free you from the mundane. But it still won’t take out the trash, although it can have your house-bot do that.

In the future you can envision this assistant tied into the Internet of things so it would be the one device you give orders to. It would then translate and talk to all of your other systems. It would talk to your smart house, talk to your self-driving car, talk to the system that is monitoring your health, etc.

The biggest issue with this kind of personal assistant is going to be privacy. A true life-assistant is going to know every good and bad thing about you, including your health problems and every one of your ugly bad habits. It is going to be essential that this kind of system stay completely private and be somehow immune to hacking. Nobody can trust an assistant in their life that others can hack or peer into.

One might think that this is something on the distant horizon, but there are many industry experts who think this is probably the first thing on the smart machine list that will come to pass, and that there will be pretty decent versions of this within the next decade. Siri is already a great first step, although often completely maddening. But as this kind of software improves it is not hard to picture this becoming something that you can’t live without. It will be a big transition for older people, but our children will take to this intuitively.

Old is Not Necessarily Dead

Microsoft Windows XP wordmark official.

Microsoft Windows XP wordmark official. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For some reason, last month was a time when I kept running into legacy systems over and over. And by legacy systems I am talking about older technology platforms that everybody assumes are little used or dead and gone.

First, I ran into two separate CPA firms that are still using PCs with Windows XP. They said they are using it because the programs they use don’t require a higher version of Windows, and the XP platform is stable and trouble-free. As it turn out this is a fairly common opinion in the corporate world. It is estimated that one-third of worldwide computers, or 500 million computers still run XP. And this is a 13-year old operating system.

It turns out that Microsoft is going to officially stop supporting XP in April 2014, and that will drive a lot of corporations to upgrade to something newer. But many smaller firms (like these CPA firms) will choose to not upgrade and they will continue to run it without the Microsoft backstop. Their reasoning is that hackers are no longer concentrating on the older operating systems and the platforms will actually get safer over time as fewer and fewer people use them. And let’s face it, upgrading a Windows platform at a company is a lot more of a pain in the butt than doing it at home. I know I have spent a whole day before making my machine work right after an upgrade, and figure that same effort times many machines in an office.

I also ran into XP when we started doing number portability and the NPAC system that everybody uses for number porting is also still on Windows XP.

But then I ran into something even older. One of my clients has recently started using MS-DOS as the software to control external access to his server. He has it set up so that somebody gets only three tries to log in and then the operating system shuts down. He thinks this is hacker-free since most LANs are hacked by programs that try millions of password combinations to get into a system. Many of you reading this are not going to remember the pleasure of turning on your computer and being greeted by a C prompt.

There are other legacy applications that are more telephone related. For example, I know a company who offers a very vanilla voice service where every customer gets a basic line and all of the features in the feature set. The cheapest way they could figure out to do this was to buy an old legacy TDM switch. They picked it up used for almost nothing including a big pile of spares. Since they aren’t trying to do anything unusual it’s easy to provision and it just hums along.

I have a lot of clients who just ditched legacy systems over the last decade. But the reason they ditched these switches was not because they didn’t work, but rather because the maintenance fees charged by the switch vendors was too high. But if you buy these same switches on the gray market you have zero vendor maintenance costs and operating the switch becomes a very different economical proposition.

As someone who is getting a little gray around my own edges I take an odd pleasure in knowing that people are finding uses for things that were used decades ago. I know I am nowhere near to obsolete and it makes me smile to see the value in older but still great technology.

Unified Communications

One of the most powerful feature sets available today is unified communications. Yet very few of my clients are selling it today. But if your customer base includes businesses or a lot of residential power users then you need to include unified communications in your product portfolio, and you need to sell it.

What is unified communications (UC)? UC is the integration of real-time communication services with non-real time services. Real time services include such things as voice telephony and VoIP, instant messaging, speech recognition, data sharing, collaboration and video conferencing. Non-real time communication services are often packaged under the name of unified messaging and include such features as voicemail, email, SMS and faxes.

There is no standard set of features that are included in a UC package and it seems that every company that offers it does it a little differently. So a carrier must typically build this product by tying together all of the components and features you already have available into a bundled product. Most carriers who own a softswitch and a voice mail server are capable of creating a basic unified communications product.

There are numerous value propositions that UC offers to end user customers:

  • Brings the ability to delivery any communications medium to any device, anywhere.
  • Extends the corporate network so that mobile customers can be productive from anywhere.
  • Gives the freedom to each individual UC user to tailor the product for the way they can best use it.
  • Can add telepresence technologies to let a UC user check the availability of other resources in his network. For instance a user can see if somebody is available to talk before they try to call them, eliminating the voicemail chain.
  • Can add collaboration and data sharing components which will make employees far more productive. Good collaboration software gives users the ability to share and work together on any document from any software platform simultaneously.

The value to a customer of UC is that it allows the customer to send a message on one medium and receive the same communication in another medium. This frees a customer from any restraints imposed by location or device and the perfect UC product will deliver any communications path to any device anywhere.

For example, a customer can receive an email on any device of his choice and also has the option to have the email content delivered as a standard email, or as a voicemail or text. Normally the customer can receive the medium, in this case an email, live in the medium for which it was intended, but can also opt to receive or store the email on a non-real time basis in any other medium.

The control for making the desired choices is given to the customer. To continue with this example, the customer can set up his UC to always receive emails in a certain format, for example, as a voice mail he listens to on his cellphone, or he can change his options on the fly during the day.

UC is a very powerful product for customers who grasp it and use it. It can make a customer sticky to your network if you give them the freedom to have complete control over their communications.

How do you create a UC product for your network? The first step is to decide what you want to offer. Not every UC system tries to deliver every communications product to every device. Many UC products instead are crafted to satisfy specific customer applications. If you own a softswitch you probably already own many of the components needed to build a simple UC product. For example, there are various features built into the feature packages on a Metaswitch that can be combined to create a decent UC product. And if you only have a few business customers who will be interested in UC, this might be sufficient.

The other alternative is to buy a UC product from somebody else’s platform. Today there are numerous companies who have assembled UC products that function on their own platforms. As a carrier you can access these platforms on a wholesale basis and buy ready-made UC products for your customers rather than build your own UC products from scratch.

There has been a lot of industry activity in developing UC products in recent years. Since March 2008 there have been several open source UC projects based on Asterisk that has led to the creation of open source UC product lines. In May 2010, the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum (UCIF) was created to develop standards between technology companies for UC and to create interoperability profiles, implementation guidelines, and best UC practices. The original founding members were HP, Juniper Networks, Logitech, Microsoft and Polycom.

Because UC can be done in many different ways and can include numerous product components you can save a lot of time before trying to create a UC product by talking to CCG.