Fifty- eight percent of the world’s population uses smart phones to connect to the Internet. For many of them, it is the only device they own that gives them access to the Internet. Thus the popularity of phablets such as the Apple iPhone 6 and various Android makers.
Owners of smartphones use their apps 80 percent of the time spent staring at their screens. Voice communications are actually dropping, coinciding with the rise of social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumbler and others, along with text messaging apps such as Messenger (recently spun off Facebook as a standalone app, and relative newcomers such as Snapchat and Tango).
So phones today, with their powerful octocore processors and fast graphics chips, literally pack the computational punch of supercomputers of the 1990s. So while they are built around the design metaphors of a portable telephone, they are actually pocket rocket computers that we use mostly for other purposes, such as broadcasting to friends on Facebook, or any other social media platform.
Now recall that the World Wide Web is just 21 years old, and has become the hub of business, personal communication, entertainment and education, with the pace of both devices and the capabilities of apps and websites growing at an exponential rate, we can easily expect more change in the next five years than we have experienced in the last 20.
Successor to phones?
One of the most unguessable changes is the form factor our Internet devices are going to morph into, moving beyond touch screen phones to some other, unguessable design. Well, many attempts are already underway. Many people, Google the most prominent, thought the eyeglass form was the next logical step. Google Glass, though, failed miserably and most people have never seen a real pair worn in public. Maybe they were just ahead of their time, like the Apple personal digital assistant the Newton failed in the 1980s, but was revived in the nineties by Palm and Microsoft, only to become redundant with the advent of smart phones.
Wearable tech, such as Fitbit body monitors, are one example of a new type of Internet connected device.
Remember the Bluetooth earphone/ microphone, which led to people conducting conversations apparently with themselves on the street? These have largely disappeared, except for communication conducted where one party must be using both hands. But today’s phones are easily turned into speaker phones, obviating the use of the hands-free, behind-the-ear Bluetooth device.
Now Internet watches are being marketed, but have failed so far to catch on with the general public. Partly, this is due to the high price (the Apple smartwatch starts at $349, and needs to be connected via Bluetooth to an iPhone), partly because they have failed to demonstrate any real utility other than signaling the wearer that there is business to attend to on their phones. I don’t expect the future of Internet connected devices to take this form factor; the screen is too small, battery life is abysmal, and they serve mostly as adjuncts to phones.
Internet of Things Is Here
But the Internet connected world is creeping up on us seemingly unremarked by the public. Cars today not only have built-in GPS, they also have Bluetooth docks for your phone so you can place and receive calls with no hands, or listen to your streaming music app or play your downloaded music directly from your phone. Computer processors are also replacing the analog parts of your engine. Sensors detect and adjust air to fuel mixtures to optimal levels, enhancing performance of your fuel injectors, which in their turn replaced carburetors.
Automatic braking systems prevent drivers from losing control in a skid by tapping the brakes hundreds of times a minute. Many passenger vehicles come with Internet connected streaming video monitors for riders. Chips record how many times a car has been driven over 80 mph, while others monitor the fuel usage and engine requirements, shutting down two cylinders while the vehicle is at cruising speed.
Televisions are already linked to the Internet, through smart boxes and devices such as the Roku, Apple TV, and Chromecast.
Dust in the Wind
Smart dust, or tiny, wind born devices, will be used to monitor the even spread of pesticides and fertilizer on farm crops. They will scatter through the atmosphere, pulsing data to earthbound receivers including air temperature, wind speed, barometric pressure, and aiding tremendously in weather forecasting.
At home, chips are embedded in appliances such as refrigerators, which monitor ambient temperature and adjust the power consumed by the compressors. New ones also tell you when you’re running out of milk or some other staple. Ones being planned for future roll out could order groceries based on your last food-buying habits, sense when you are on the way home through GPS, and even place food in the oven through a door in the side.
Thermostats monitor when you are home and when you leave, adjusting the the temperature accordingly. They even know when you’re sleeping, and keep the house cooler. Nest already makes these, and they have become very popular.
Smart couches could heat your seat as your pizza is cooking, or your seat at the table.
Smart tooth brushes already exist, and detect places you haven’t properly brushed. Future iterations will detect the general health of your teeth and gums, alerting you it’s time to visit the dentist.
Smart bowls, utensils and plates will track what we eat, helping us live healthier lives and possibly lowering the cost of health insurance.
Streetlights, washing machines, pills that monitor the absorption of the medicine you take, roads and bridges, will all become connected.
In other words, they will not just report back to individual servers, but actually talk to one another, as do many of the bots and apps that populate the Internet do today.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Eric Schmidt, of Google, says that the Internet, as it begins to permeate our lives, will “disappear” from conscious thought, and merge, literally, into our environment. This is the Internet of Things of which I have written, and it is not mere speculation.
Billions of devices are expected to come online in just the next ten years. Schmidt said, at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davros, Switzerland, “It will be part of your presence all the time. Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic. And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.”
But what language will the devices composing the Internet of things speak? Surely not iOS or Android, or derivatives of either. ARM, which makes the vast majority of processors in phones, is unveiling an operating platform for embedded devices to connect the hardware and software in these devices, which includes a free device-specific operating system and a server-side operating system that links everything together.
In 2012, a new Internet was developed, which you have never heard of. It took years to develop, and was dubbed Internet Protocol Version 6. It provided a platform for operating systems of the Internet of Things to run on. It was needed because the existing Internet was running out of mathematical room. Domain names, which are becoming scarcer, deal with a set of numbers, or Internet Protocol addresses, which identify the website and each device connected to it. The old Internet, which had 4.3 billion of them, was fast running out of new ones. In fact the old Internet had run out of them the previous year, and stopgap measures were used in the interim.
But Ipv6 has a top end capacity of 340 trillion, trillion, trillion addresses, making possible the Internet of Things.
Flood of data
But capacity alone is not enough, sensors embedded in everyday objects gather and transmit the data server side. And we already have plenty of them. They sense their environments, and transmit over the web their location, speed, temperature, and state (such as connected lightbulbs reporting “I’m on, I’m on, I’m on…”).
Helsinki, Finland has installed intelligent street lighting, with sensors that detect ambient conditions and automatically turn on or off according to the natural light available, weather conditions, traffic etc.
There are now more than 25 billion things connected to the Internet, while Earth’s population will reach just 7.6 billion in 2018.
Manufacturing, healthcare infrastructure, and energy industries stand to be transformed by the new Industrial Internet. GE alone predicts an annual savings of $90 billion a year in oil and gas as smart components gain control of resource usage. Machine to machine communication will travel through the Web. Today, there are 1.3 billion connected devices; this number is expected to exceed 12.5 billion devices by 2020. They will affect nearly everyone on the planet, but transparently.
These latter developments will be unnoticed by the average person. Their direct interaction with the Internet is dominated by three form factors: cellphones, tablets, and personal computers. Tech companies are making a making a play for widespread adoption of smart watches, but these, I believe, will never become the primary personal Internet device, for reasons mentioned above.
Perfect form and function
Just as typewriters had their day, retaining their primacy of place in the office, only to be replaced by new devices after decades, it is my belief that the cellphone will be the form factor that will remain dominant for personal use, although with much more computational power and capabilities.
The Internet may surround us, as electricity does today, but the phone form factor will be with us for years to come. Convertible tablets may replace PCs, but the handheld, compact, ever more powerful cellphone will, I predict, will be with us for years to come. I simply can’t imagine a more perfect union of form and function.
Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology.