The pieces are falling into place for an “internet of things”

Mike Kuniavsky - CEO, ThingM at Mobilize 2011It may be difficult to describe what exactly the phrase “an internet of things” means, but the pieces of the puzzle that are required for that to develop are all here today, ThingM CEO Mike Kuniavsky told attendees at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference in San Francisco. Those puzzle pieces include ubiquitous network connectivity, cloud-based services, cheap assembly of electronics, social design, open collaboration tools and low-volume sales channels. When put together, Kuniavsky said, they create an “innovation ecosystem” that is the foundation for an internet of things.

ThingM is what Kuniavsky called a “micro-OEM” that creates small batch custom electronics for a variety of clients, but the ThingM CEO and co-founder is actually a designer by training, who worked in web design and then user design before founding Adaptive Path, and who still works as a design consultant for large electronics companies and has written a book called Smart Things. The ThingM CEO said that based on his understanding of the custom electronics market, the “landscape in which we’re creating ubiquitous devices is about to fundamentally change.”

Although the phrase “internet of things” has become a popular buzzword that Gartner Research recently included on its Hype Cycle, Kuniavsky said that there are already aspects of this phenomenon that are affecting our lives — for example, the use of RFID chips and near-field communications (NFC) can help tell us where the food we buy was grown, while GPS and other technologies are allowing cities to reinvent things like the parking meter so that they can apply time-based pricing. Small companies like Green Goose are taking advantage of these trends by selling tiny stick-on widgets that include a sensor and a communications chip.

“I can’t describe to you what [the internet of things] is, or what it’s going to be, but I can tell you what I think the components are going to be,” Kuniavsky said. One of them is what the ThingM CEO called “object-oriented hardware” design — which allows designers to focus on their end goal or the problem they are trying to solve, and then simply add components as required, since each consists of a single chip or element (for example, a communications chip, a GPS unit, etc.). This in turn is helped by the falling cost of assembling small batches of electronics — not just in Asian countries, but even in the U.S., as illustrated by startups such as Adafruit and DIYdrones.

Cloud computing and social innovation

Then comes the cloud, and cloud-based services, says Kuniavksy. Cloud computing is so developed now that there are hardware objects that can connect any device to a cloud service and share data with that service. And the design of electronics has also been reshaped by the web — it is becoming more social, he said, instead of just being “a solitary activity, done in a lab with a soldering iron.” Collaboration allows startups and small companies to be much more innovative, since they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Platforms such as Arduino, he said, are like “the Linux of internet-of-things hardware.”

The final element, the ThingM CEO said, is the marketing and distribution required so that people can sell small volumes of what they create — and that is coming to life through services such as Kickstarter, which allows entrepreneurs to raise money for their ideas, and to test those ideas to see if they are going to be worthwhile before they even build anything. Then other services such as Etsy and can be used to sell small batches or runs of custom electronics, “doing an end-run around the traditional electronics ecosystem.”

All of these elements, Kuniavsky said, are creating the framework for an internet-of-things to develop, in the same way that entrepreneur Eric Ries has talked about the elements that are required for a “lean startup” to succeed: free and open tools, low-cost development, social tools that enable rapid iteration, cloud services that allow for rapid deployment and low-volume sales channels to test out ideas.