Socializing the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things may not be made up of humans, but like their people counterparts, these devices will largely rely on SMS to communicate. And they want to get social too.

Many operators have been waiting for the time when connected devices will far outweigh the number of connected phones for this very reason. With the exception of smart electricity meters using powerline communications, 3G e-readers, and some devices that may need a larger payload than SMS can offer, most connected devices only need to transmit short status reports: “I am functioning.” “I am empty.” “I am in this location.”

At Le Web in Paris, the theme was the Internet of Things, but with a very Silicon Valley feel to it. We’re not talking about ugly, dirty, industrial connected devices, we’re here to talk about smartphone-controlled light bulbs, EEG brain-trainers, robot ball games, and talking teddy bears.

And we’re also hearing from a Twitter-alternative called App.net that believes the Internet of Things needs its own social network.

App.net, which I first came across in September on the Orange Blogger Bus Tour to San Francisco, is an innovative, peer-to-peer messaging platform. It has a small but enthusiastic user base that enjoys the fact that they have to pay for a subscription (unlike Twitter) and are not compromised by advertising and spam (unlike Twitter).

What is also different about App.net is that it does not need billions of users or a global brand nor to yank the rug from under the third-party applications that help to make it a success (as Twitter has done with Instagram, Tumblr, IFTTT, etc.). With the malleable App.net, third-party apps provide a layer over the top and the network underneath can be invisible. For instance, one use case is a chess network running over it.

At Le Web, Dalton Caldwell, founder of App.net, talked to me about how his social networkcould be used for the Internet of Things. The private channel of App.net could funnel secure messages directly for objects to owners. But the same network would also broadcast to other devices. App.net allows third-party developers to create complex filters that can be laid over the network so that you, as a subscriber, are not drowned out by someone else’s machine suffering the M2M equivalent of verbal diarrhea or piggybacking a popular hashtag.

The M2M plus P2P opportunity
Are wireless operators talking to App.net? Not yet, but I think that it is a mistake, because M2M and P2P go so well together.

In traditional M2M thinking, the message from a connected device is securely relayed to a server and then distributed to an alarm or business intelligence engine or control system. With a P2P network, the connected device can send its direct message payload to all subscribers or anyone listening. Not suitable for all usages, but it is compelling for many.

A home weather station like the Netatmo, for instance, could publish its weather reports or temperature readings to all other home weather stations via a social network. This would offer a much more accurate picture of true weather than from a national meteorological body that has only a limited number of weather stations available to it. Crowdsourcing data from connected devices could spawn a whole new industry.

By having the ability to interact with other objects and groups of people, the business case for connected devices will improve dramatically — after all, the connected toaster was always a bit of a crap poster child. The more connections the connected device has, the more valuable it becomes — it’s Metcalfe’s Law in action.

So what does it all mean for operators? Well, the forecast for billions of connected devices may be coming true. But they could end up drawing a much smaller share of revenues as communications switch from SMS to social network alternatives. They will need to adapt to this new worldview or see an opportunity lost.

This story first appeared on Innovation Generation.

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