Sep 182010

All things considered, this Julian Bleecker’s Why Things Matter is probably the closest we have to a Manifesto for the internet of things. Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things is also in that category, but it’s a longer text and it lacks the theoretical punch. Besides, any theoretical piece on networked objects has to first deal with the modern separation of the world into the nature/culture dichotomy, and Bleecker does just that with his use of Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern.

Why Things Matter by evanLe

Sep 132010

As I discussed in my last post on cloud computing, Google’s strategic decision to release Android as an open source platform, therefore granting complete hardware freedom to vendors and complete app freedom to geeks, has resulted in something resembling a blitzkrieg on Apple’s Maginot line around the iPhone. Apple’s iThings are still shiny, and they might still release another household appliance masquerading as a computing/communication device, but it seems the droid army has made them irrelevant. Consider:

Google’s Android leapfrogging over iPhone, BlackBerry, WindowsMercury News on the latest Android sales figures, provided by Gartner market research. Why is this important? In the context of cloud computing the key battle to be waged (correction, the battle is already raging in earnest)  is about the platform from which users will access the cloud. At the most basic spec level this platform will have to be mobile, always-on, and malleable enough to allow a near-unlimited number of services running through it. It is this last bit which makes the Android a key development – the platform is open for a theoretically unlimited number of apps and Google has relinquished control over certification. Crucially, the most important actor-network in the app business – the developers – seem to agree:

“The developers tell us they love Android. It’s easier to learn; it takes less time, and one of the complaints we hear quite a bit about is (Apple’s) app certification process as a real thing that costs them time and money”

The key bit not mentioned in the article is that the iPhone had a two-year head-start on Android, and an army of carefully cultivated cultist followers ready to buy anything the company deigns to release. This makes the following graph all the more amazing:

smartphone numbers

Smartphone market share (courtesy of Mercury News)

India’s $35 Android 7-inch Tablet to Hit in JanuaryTom’s Hardware, Engadget on the upcoming release of a dirt-cheap Android-based cloud-tablet-for-the-masses in India. The price tag suggests this is a a heavily-subsidized device (unless they have achieved some mind-boggling economics of scale), which in turn suggests this may be part of a long-term strategy by the Indian government to leapfrog their infrastructure deficiencies. As I’ve already mentioned, governments have two possible ways to deal with those – either invest heavily in the established technology (for example fiber networks), or forget about the established tech and concentrate on the upcoming one. Australia seems hell-bent on going the former way, while India seems to be going with the latter. From the perspective of cloud platforms, this of course is a major win for the Android. An entire generation will be growing up using open source as their main net platform.

The future of the internet. A virtual counter-revolutionThe Economist on the developing ‘secret garden’ trend online, and the many possible repercussions for the internet as we know it. The article is long, detailed, and covers everything from censorship and the Great Firewall of China to the Apple app store and net neutrality. Why is this important? Crucially, the article suggests that fragmentation is inevitable, and not necessarily a bad thing. When most people spend the majority of their time online on Facebook, and are there entirely of their own volition, it is a bit rich to bemoan the evil corporate takeover of the net. In this context the key issue seems to be not net neutrality but platform openness. The cloud is all about always/everywhere-on access, and while different protocols might still be treated differently depending on the carrier, the connectivity will be there. Given the already-happening fragmentation of common content into fiefdoms (Facebook, Apple app store),  the strategic question concerns levels of access and open vs closed platforms in the cloud. In other words, Android vs iPhone.

The web’s new walls. How the threats to the internet’s openness can be averted – An article from The Economist related to the one above but discussing in more detail the issue of net neutrality. Why is this important? Probably one of the key fronts in the battle for cloud dominance will be about access levels and the related price structures. The heated debate around net neutrality is quite superficially based on concerns about content discrimination (access providers censoring content through pricing), while the underlying issue is of course about competing access levels. In other words, about open markets and competition. The article rightly points out that the whole net neutrality debate is actually a distraction based on a misunderstanding of how markets operate (I am sorry to say this is arcane knowledge for most academics). The best example comes from the Apple app store – what good is net neutrality when the user is locked in a walled garden filled only with content blessed by the high priest himself? The last three paragraphs of the article provide a nice summation of the overall argument.

Mining social networks: Untangling the social webThe Economist on the exponentially growing business of network analysis, covering everything from counter-terrorism to social networks and foreign aid. Why is this important? This article illustrates what seems to be the dominant, if not the only, business model on the cloud – filtering data and managing layers of meta-data. As I argued in a  recent lecture on engaging authorless content, when data is free organizing it becomes valuable. Considering that the cloud is comprised only of data, the only relevant measure of value is the layers of meta-data that can be extracted from the primary set. In other words, network analysis is going to be a very big business.
Sep 122010

Five billionth device about to plug into InternetNetwork World on the explosion of permanently connected mobile devices. According to the author, today there are around 1 billion computers (PC’s, laptops) with regular net connectivity. The remainder of that 5 billion from the title is comprised of mobile devices and all sorts of peripherals such as cameras, TV’s, picture frames, etc. The key development is that the number of networked objects is growing at such an astonishing rate, that fixed-place connectivity (the venerable personal computer in other words) is soon to lose its raison d’etre. Accordingly, the most important developments seem to be in the area of machine-to-machine connectivity.

The next billion geeks: How the mobile internet will transform the BRICI countriesThe Economist on the Brazil, Russia, India, China and Indonesia mobile revolution. According to the article, there are 610 million regular internet users and 1.8 billion mobile-phone users in the BRICI market as a whole. Interestingly, and perhaps predictably, due to very poor to non-existent copper/fibre infrastructure in places like India and Indonesia mobiles have leapfrogged the PC as the main internet access interface in these countries. Only 81 million Indians have regular net access through fixed lines, but there are 507 million mobile phone users paying as little as $o.oo6 per minute, and more and more of these mobile users are also starting to surf the net through their phones. These numbers are incredible because they illustrate how a deregulated market based around a new technology can rapidly develop and leapfrog an established technology. This is also interesting in the context of Australia’s national broadband network plans which will eventually deliver a tragically outdated technical solution to a problem which can be solved rapidly as India’s example demonstrates.

How Google is Looking to Cut Apple’s Margin and How the Sell Side of Wall Street Will Enable This Without Sheeple Investor’s Having a ClueBoombust Blog analyzing the cloud strategies of Google, Apple and Microsoft. Some very interesting analytics of earnings numbers and market share, but above all a clear spelling of the probable long-term strategy of Google with the Android phones/tablets. Google seems to have taken Apple entirely by surprise with its strategy to not only give away Android for free but to make it entirely open-source which in turn makes the platform an instant favorite with every real tech geek out there. This of course means that Google doesn’t have Apple’s fat margins from sales, but on the other hand it allows Google to not only expand rapidly (they have already achieved larger market share then Apple – an astonishing achievement), but to also undercut the future margins of the iPhone. Significantly, Apple has to compete on the software front with Google and its legion of geek volunteers, while simultaneously competing with all the hardware companies out there – HTC, Samsung, Motorolla to name just a few. On both of these fronts Apple is terribly outplayed in terms of innovation cycles – i.e. how fast can it research, release, update new products. Because of its cultist philosophy and total-control business model Apple has been maneuvered by Google into reacting in either of two ways: [1] cut prices, which will result in lesser margins and less resources for future development, or [2] break down the cult and open its metaphorical walled garden, which will go against the very core of what Apple and Steve Jobs stand for. Either way leads to doom, and Google has achieved that by completely embracing the open source movement. How is that for ‘Don’t be Evil!’?

Sep 072010

As I discussed here, and here, Google seems to seriously plan for and work towards a prime position in cloud computing (web 3.0?). A couple of interesting links relate to that. First comes the now infamous interview Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, gave at the WSJ. In that interview he made a number of comments indicating where Google are looking at the moment, but for some reason all it was remembered for is his quip that because of privacy issues with social networks in the future kids may end up having to change their names when they reach adulthood. Ok, this is odd, and it came out of nowhere, but surely there are more interesting bits in what he had to say. Much more interesting for example is his hint that Google are seriously working on developing semantic algorithms:

“As you go from the search box [to the next phase of Google], you really want to go from syntax to semantics, from what you typed to what you meant. And that’s basically the role of [Artificial Intelligence].  I think we will be the world leader in that for a long time.”

This statement has to be read in the context of Google’s move to the cloud. In that paradigm the semantic depth of your search query will be provided by your entire cloud footprint. This is quite literally an Artificial Intelligence in full operational mode. As William Gibson writes in a recent article in the New York Times,

“We never imagined that artificial intelligence would be like this. We imagined discrete entities. Genies.”

We imagined HAL, and Wintermute, but instead of managing an ultimately controllable anthropomorphic machine we have to deal with a distributed mind that is built of…us. An ambient socio-digital system.

Aug 162010

In part 1 I mentioned Google’s focus on low latency sensors and massively redundant cloud data centers. Google is not the only company in the race though, and probably not the most advanced down that road. Ericsson – the world’s largest mobile equipment vendor – is seriously planning to operate 50 billion net-connected devices by 2020.  Only a small fraction of these will be what we consider as ‘devices’ – mobile phones, laptops, Kindles. The enormous majority will be everyday objects such as fridges (strategic object due to its central role in food consumption), cars (see the new Audi), clothes, basically everything potentially worth connecting. This implies an explosion in data traffic.

As Stacey Higginbotham writes over at Gigaom:

So even as data revenue and traffic rises, carriers face two key challenges: One, the handset market is saturated; and two, users on smartphones are boosting their consumption of data at a far faster rate than carriers are boosting their data revenue. The answer to these challenges is selling data plans for your car. Your kitchen. And even your electric meter.

In other words, it is in the interest of mobile providers to extend the network to as many devices as possible so that they can start profiting from the long tail. As the competition in mobile connectivity is fierce and at cut-throat margins, the first company to start mass-connecting (and charging) daily objects is going to make a killing. Hence Google’s focus on sensors and data centers.

This presentation by wireless analyst Chetan Sharma outlines the motivation for mobile providers to bring the internet of things as quickly as possible.

Aug 142010

I just watched this interesting interview with Hugo Barra, director of product management at Google (G), talking about the convergence between mobile net devices and cloud computing. He is mainly answering questions on G plans for the next 2-5 years but a couple of long-term ideas seep through. First, they are thinking sensors and massively redundant cloud data-centers, and they are thinking of them as part of a constant feedback process for which low latency is the key. In other words, your phone’s camera and microphone talk directly to the G data-cloud on a latency of under 1 second – whatever you film on your camera you can voice-recall on any device within 1 second flat. The implications are huge, because G is effectively eliminating the need for local data storage. Second, to get there, they are rolling out real-time voice search by the end of next year. Real time voice search allows you to query the cloud in, well, under 1 second. Third, they are thinking of this whole process as ‘computer vision’ – a naming tactic which might seem plain semantics, but nevertheless reveals a lot. It reveals that G sees stationary computers as blind, that for them mobile computers are first and foremost sensors, and that sensors start truly seeing only when there is low latency feedback between them and the cloud. How so? The key of course is in the content – once storage, processing power and speed get taken care of by the cloud, the clients  – that is, us – start operating at a meta level of content which is quite hard to even fully conceptualize at the moment (Barra admits he has no idea where this will go in 5 years). The possibilities are orders of magnitude beyond what we are currently doing with computers and the net.

A related video, though with a more visionary perspective, is this talk by Kevin Kelly on the next 5000 days of the net. I show this to all my media students, though I don’t think any of them truly grasp what all-in-the-cloud implies. The internet of things. More on this tomorrow.

Aug 122010

Bruce Schneier has posted over at his blog the following draft of a social networking data taxonomy:

  • Service data is the data you give to a social networking site in order to use it. Such data might include your legal name, your age, and your credit-card number.
  • Disclosed data is what you post on your own pages: blog entries, photographs, messages, comments, and so on.
  • Entrusted data is what you post on other people’s pages. It’s basically the same stuff as disclosed data, but the difference is that you don’t have control over the data once you post it — another user does.
  • Incidental data is what other people post about you: a paragraph about you that someone else writes, a picture of you that someone else takes and posts. Again, it’s basically the same stuff as disclosed data, but the difference is that you don’t have control over it, and you didn’t create it in the first place.
  • Behavioral data is data the site collects about your habits by recording what you do and who you do it with. It might include games you play, topics you write about, news articles you access (and what that says about your political leanings), and so on.
  • Derived data is data about you that is derived from all the other data. For example, if 80 percent of your friends self-identify as gay, you’re likely gay yourself.

Why is this important? Because in order to develop ways to control the data we distribute in the cloud we need to first classify precisely the different types of data and their relational position within our digital footprint and the surrounding ecology. Disclosed data is of different value to Behavioral or Derived data, and most people will likely value their individual content such as pictures and posts much more than the aggregated patterns sucked out of their footprint by a social network site’s algorithms. Much to think about here.

May 102010

Charlie Stross has a great piece on his site commenting Apple’s strategy with the iPad and Steve Jobs’s vicious antipathy towards any cross-platform apps not originating from Apple. Plenty of material to discuss there, but for me the interesting part is [1] the notion that cloud computing is going to displace the PC in a controlled walled-garden way. By walled-garden I mean a total-control platform like iTunes – or anything else from that nightmarish company for that matter. I suspect that Stross is right, at least when it comes to Apple – their strategy after all is easy to deduce, but I just don’t see how walled-garden platform is going to dominate the cloud-space when you consider the relentless pressure for interoperability applied by a constantly emerging market. One could argue that Microsoft’s success with the PC platform has been solely due to their complete openness to hardware and third-party soft. Google seem to go down a similar path and if anything it is their already developing cloud platform that would probably dominate the early decade of cloud computing. Stross sums it up nicely:

‘Because you won’t have a “computer” in the current sense of the word. You’ll just be surrounded by a swarm of devices that give you access to your data whenever and however you need it.’

Apple’s and their ilk ‘success’ would be to maintain the cult by porting to a cloud platform, but the sheer necessity of total interoperability related to broad market penetration will prevent them from dominating the cloud. Finally, the comparison between Apple and BMW/Mercedes ‘high-end’ cars doesn’t work for me – I see Jobs’s cult as a Saab.