The dark matter of the virtual world: resources

The Internet and mobile experiences of 2013 continue to become more beautiful, personal, contextual and better designed. Web design pioneer Pinterest has amped up its photos more than ever, while apps like Dark Sky continue to win over fans with simple, visual experiences.
At the same time the digital infrastructure underlying these sites and services also continues to mature. Webscale computing giants like Google (s GOOG), and Facebook are innovating around the actual servers, and the physical layout of the data centers, while cloud computing leaders like Amazon’s web services make sure the web and mobile apps can be built for more low cost than ever before.
But take it down another layer below the latest photo sharing app and the computing infrastructure and you’ll encounter the quiet workhorses that keep the Internet and its apps working and improving: resources. It’s mostly energy, but also water, as well as the rare materials used in things like batteries.
Data centers consume huge amounts of both energy and water, as does the production of the devices where we’re spending our virtual lives. These gadgets are also collectively consuming a growing amount of energy as they operate 24/7 and remain always on and always connected.
Apple Solar Farm
The production and use of these core resources has historically gotten little innovation, and drawn little excitement. But as the world starts to enter an era of increasingly constrained resources — as the population hits 9 billion by 2050 and the climate starts to change —  it’ll be the resources that are supporting the virtual world that will be next to rise in prominence and will get a coming wave of innovation.
Quiet backbone
It’s because of the virtual nature of connected technology that resources have become so decoupled from digital services. Years ago our CD collections were stacked up on our walls in our living rooms, and our books across our shelves. Now our digital music collections are stored in Apple’s iCloud, or sit on Spotify’s servers and our books are compressed into our Kindles. The physical goods are hidden, and replaced with energy produced by a power plant and used to keep the data center running thousands of miles away, and energy produced at a power plant probably hundreds of miles away and piped to your outlet.
Grid energy, in the developed world, works like magic: unquestioned, and accepted. Go to a developing country where the grid is spotty or non existent and it’s another story. But when it works, you don’t even know where that energy is coming from and what source — natural gas, coal, nuclear or clean power, and from which plant? Who cares.
But energy being used by data centers, by connected devices and by the network itself is huge and growing. Data centers in the U.S. are estimated to consume 12 percent more energy every year due to the continued growth in construction, according to the National Data Center Energy Efficiency Information Program’s factsheet. While the largest data centers are becoming much more energy efficient, it’s the older and smaller data centers that are still highly inefficient and consuming large amounts of energy keeping the servers cool. Gadgets themselves consume energy both in production and in use, and while devices are getting more efficient, too, the growth in sheer volumes means collectively this will go up a lot over time.
Pressure points
The era of constrained resources is just beginning, so right now access to resources acts as sort of dark matter, quietly putting pressure in complex ways on how the virtual world operates. Behind the scenes, access to low cost energy and water dictates where the Internet giants are building their next data centers and where consumer electronics companies are manufacturing their next hit gadgets. In turn, where new power plants are being built in developing nations like China, is becoming dependent on where fresh water is available.
In places where there’s not a functioning grid, one of the biggest drivers behind building distributed electricity systems (like putting a solar panel on a village rooftop) is so people can charge up cell phones, enabling access to text and mobile services like payment systems.
As resources become more constrained — through depletion or legislation — these pressure points will become even more acute. It’s already happening in some regions. And forward-thinking companies are proactively getting ahead of that era.
Bloom Energy
Today Apple (s AAPL) is looking to power 60 percent of the power for its Maiden, North Carolina, with clean power produced on site. It’s built the largest non-utility-owned solar system and the largest non-utility-owned fuel cell farm in the U.S. That’s a highly unusual move by an Internet company, and Apple did that because it wanted to pioneer and innovate for the sector and probably experiment with controlling its own energy production. Remember, it’s brand is dependent on being an early adopter.
But there will be a time, and many a place, where fossil fuel energy produced at a traditional power plant and used by a data center won’t be so cheap or accessible. In Europe, it’s regulation that’s driving that change. European data centers are being pushed to reduce their carbon emissions, and are having a hard time meeting those goals through efficiency and clean power.
Take that energy down to the micro level, and it’s the battery in the device that often times is the quiet influencing force that commands the form of the device. Slow innovation in batteries means the battery has been one of the least flexible pieces and also hasn’t change much in decades. Battery innovation will be particularly important for wearable computing as it will operate as both fashion and function.
As the pressure increases on these pain points, as resources become more constrained in various ways, more and more innovation will emerge around how resources are generated, consumed and stored. And might not be from the startups out there. The cleantech investing wave of the last five years still hasn’t produced many winners. But Apple and Google have already begun innovating around clean power for data centers.
And as more innovation occurs, more prominence will also come. Resources could start to move from being the dark matter behind the virtual world, to an important piece that can’t be ignored.