“Advertise” yourself with The Physical Web, and beyond…

Would you wear a t-shirt that advertises a webpage?

Attend any tech conference and you’d be hard pressed not to spot one. In fact, most of us advertise company brands every day by much more than just the clothes we wear.

Now, would you wear a t-shirt that advertises YOUR webpage?

Why not? You are your own brand. Perhaps a t-shirt isn’t your preferred communication channel? How about a mobile app?

There you have it: within 30 seconds, you can be advertising your personal brand as a webpage via an Android application. And, more importantly, there’s a non-negligible chance that someone Nearby will take notice!

For those interested in the technology (or the nerdy featured image), it’s all standard: Android can advertise URLs in Eddystone packets over Bluetooth Low Energy. And our open source json-silo accepts the profile of any Person, Product or Place as schema.org and JSON-LD, and returns an Eddystone-friendly URL. When queried, the json-silo returns the profile name as the title, and the profile description in the meta, both of which are used by The Physical Web to present contextual notifications on mobile.

Contextual Notification on Nearby

In our previous blog post, we predicted:

this will be the year that a major social network empowers their users to “advertise” themselves in exchange for personalised everyday experiences

It’s technically possible. And the moment businesses start listening and responding to such ads, the incentives for both parties become undeniable. We’ve been preparing for that moment for a long time.

We are advertising!  The devices we carry and wear are already anonymously advertising our presence, and personalisation is inevitable. Here’s the question:  Are you listening?

OOH! A social media prediction for 2017

In 2016, we postulated that the Internet of Things may very well prove to be a personal brand ambassador for each and every one of us, given that the devices we carry and wear make it possible to “advertise” our digital selves to the physical places we visit. When the Local Search Association asked us and 50 experts about the future of location-based marketing and media we replied:

our prediction for 2017 is that the first major social network will empower their users to experiment with this feature

Technology is no longer the blocker, as you can “advertise” yourself with reelyApp using established standards as we described in detail months ago.

And we can already push the concept quite far in everyday life. We proved, with our partners, measurable ROI in retail with a live deployment that even triggers contextually-relevant videos on displays to shoppers:

Now extend that capability across a city. In anticipation of programmatic advertising, out-of-home (OOH) media companies are scrambling to adopt technologies that can measure real-world audiences in real-time. Such technologies will enable citywide marketplaces for the data you choose to share, as we presented at a recent Ericsson Smart Cities event:

All the emerging marketplace is missing is a critical mass of individuals with the incentive to “advertise” their digital selves. And a major social network is the ideal candidate to bring exactly that to the table.

We’re working to kindle that marketplace, engaging both sides of the table, and recently adding key enabling features to our Pareto platform, including programmatic content triggers. We even memed the personalised advertising scene from The Minority Report (2002) to serve as the default video content.

15 years ago, would you have predicted that we would today choose to carry and wear personal identification devices?

Are we right to predict that a major social network will empower such users to share what they want when they want in exchange for personalised everyday experiences? Let’s see what 2017 has in store, pun intended!

A remarkaBLE week in Bluetooth

The headlines:

  • 01 12 16 — HID Global Acquires Bluvision to Expand With Bluetooth Solutions for the Enterprise Internet of Things Market (press release)
  • 05 12 16 — Gimbal is Joining The Mobile Majority (press release)
  • 07 12 16 — Bluetooth 5 Now Available (press release)

It’s not every week that you see two companies in your competitive landscape acquired, in addition to the first major evolution of the standard on which your core technology is based! Amidst everything else that’s happened in 2016, perhaps we’re the only ones to remark this remarkaBLE coincidence, but it’s certainly not without significance!

In 2012, when we started reelyActive, our expected exit was an enterprise acquisition: build a better real-time location system (RTLS), raise the right eyebrows, combine agile innovation with access to the right resources. It would appear that Bluvision have done just that, which is commendable given the track record of outcomes for RTLS companies (our co-founders cut their teeth at one which inevitably failed!)

Over the past few months, we’ve shifted our immediate focus to the out-of-home (OOH) market which has a pressing need to reach and engage individuals in the real-world, in real-time, and in context (all the while measuring the results). It would appear that Gimbal and The Mobile Majority have come together to do just that for mobile advertising.

What makes this week’s coincidence so striking to us?

Where Gimbal and The Mobile Majority are headed, we’re taking our novel Bluetooth RTLS technology, like that of Bluvision.

When Bluvision CEO Jimmy Buchheim showed us his BluFi prototype in 2014, we knew we weren’t alone in developing “bring-your-own-device” (BYOD) RTLS technology allowing any Bluetooth Low Energy device, including the ones we carry and wear, to be identified and tracked throughout a space. This is the inverse (literally!) of what Gimbal and almost every other mobile-focused company is doing today with beacons.

But what about the future? To us, advertising is backwards, as much for brands as for Bluetooth packets! Which brings us to Bluetooth 5.

With 4x range, 2x speed and 8x broadcasting message capacity, the enhancements of Bluetooth 5 focus on increasing the functionality of Bluetooth for the IoT.

While the Bluetooth SIG are advertising (pun intended) the above features as key to the future of IoT, what’s key to us is that Bluetooth 5 hasn’t upset the existing wireless advertising functionality (which, for us, makes it the undisputed global standard for Active RFID). This means that the growing billions of people, products and places with Bluetooth radios will retain the possibility of being discoverable on a human scale, advertising what they want, when they want and with whom they want.

Our mission is to unlock the value of the data [they] choose to share.

And the week’s events have emboldened us on that mission, affirming the value of BYOD RTLS and of reaching audiences in the real-world, while protecting and extending the wireless standard which makes our vision a reality.

Hearable Nearables

Imagine you could “hear” Bluetooth devices moving through a building. In anticipation of last weekend’s #HackTheHouse hackathon for smart buildings, hosted at Notman House where we’ve had our technology deployed since 2012, we created the Notman Tonal Presence web application to do just that.

On each of Notman’s three floors, there are three of our Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) sensors (which we call reelceivers), plus an addition sensor in the adjacent OSMO Cafe.

Think of each floor as a musical note in a scale (C – E – G – C), and each wing of that floor as a pan in stereo (Left – Centre – Right).

When BLE devices “appear” and “disappear” they produce a note which encodes the location by the tonality and pan. Same thing when BLE devices “displace” from one zone to another, only these use a ping-pong delay rather than a pan.

For the hackathon, we ordered three packs of Estimote Nearables which are BLE devices that periodically transmit their temperature and 3-axis acceleration. Unfortunately, these were held up in customs and didn’t make it in time. But the web app essentially turns these into “hearable nearables” and, as you’ll pick out in the video, we could tell not only when they had arrived, but also where in the house they were:

Yes, they’re on the second floor east (right) wing. Why so noisy? As we discussed in our ObservaBLE Etiquette blog post, the Estimote Nearables cycle their identifier with every transmission. To an observer, that would be interpreted as a new device “appearing” each time. Hence plenty of appearance and disappearance notes in the web application.

To reinforce this point, have a look at the Google Analytics (GA) timeline for Notman House. Our platform pushes all the events from the house to GA (see our Google Analytics for the Physical World blog post), where each is interpreted as a session based on its identifier. The Nearables’ aggressive identifier-cycling results significantly biases the number of sessions, and hence we can tell from the edge of the high plateau when they arrived: shortly after 16h on November 15th.

We created the Notman Tonal Presence application as an example of calm technology for smart buildings. The ambient sounds allow the listener to subconsciously register foot traffic within the building while leaving their attention free for other tasks. Even the casual listener would have been gently alerted to the arrival of the Nearables, which is precisely the objective of calm technology. And, now, duly alerted, we can direct our attention towards filtering out the Nearables from GA so that their incessant identifier-cycling doesn’t saturate the session counts!

ObservaBLE etiquette

Rules are explicit principles governing conduct. Etiquette is an expected code of conduct within social norms. When we developed and released our first Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) device in 2013, there were rules, but there was no etiquette.

To understand why, recall that BLE was born as Wibree, introduced by Nokia in 2006, and only merged into the Bluetooth standard in 2010. That merger paved the way for the first global standard for Active RFID, as BLE allows devices to spontaneously “advertise” themselves to any and all observers (readers) in range. While the BLE rules may be a decade old, commercial deployments are far too recent to expect established etiquette, even today.

Before BLE, there were only proprietary Active RFID systems, of which the reelyActive cofounders themselves have developed two. Proprietary systems afford the designers control over both the rules and etiquette conducive to the intended application of the technology. BLE, on the other hand, established the rules for a global standard, encouraging widespread adoption, while leaving the etiquette necessarily free to (hopefully) emerge from the real-world interactions of the billion-plus devices now shipping annually from countless vendors.

Over the past three years, while we have indeed observed an emergence of etiquette, it tends to remain fragmented and lack cohesion. Moreover, we continue to be surprised by the incidence of minor rule violations. Our intent here is to formally acknowledge these shortcomings, suggest improvements and encourage all concerned parties to collaborate to ensure that the enormous potential of BLE’s unique “advertising” capability can be fully realised.

Manufacturer Specific Data: breaking the rules

A powerful feature of BLE is the ability to “advertise” a few bytes of whatever you want, whenever you want, as Manufacturer Specific Data. Simply include your 16-bit company code (list here) and send whatever data you like (sensor readings, identifiers, missile launch codes, …). Curiously, that simple rule gets broken, likely inadvertently, far more often than one might expect.

That can’t be what your Samsung wearable is advertising, the company code is invalid! Oh wait, it’s just backwards…

Yes, even Samsung can get the endianness wrong, sending 0x7800 instead of 0x0078.

TrackR as Ericsson

Will you register with the SIG and use a companyIdentifierCode other than Ericsson’s 0x0000 in future?

That’s a line from our e-mail to Chris from TrackR after we observed that their devices were using company code ‘0’ which is assigned to Ericsson Technology Licensing. As of writing, TrackR still don’t appear to have claimed their own company code.

The most common error we’ve seen is for devices to ignore the 16-bits reserved for the company code and employ the entire space for their own data. While this and the errors presented above aren’t showstoppers per se, they nonetheless hamper device discovery due to mistaken or unknown identity. What’s going on?

It’s easy to follow the rules when they’re well documented. In the case of BLE, we feel there’s much room for improvement. In fact, we took it upon ourselves to create a software library called advlib, with explicit documentation and an online tool for interpreting advertising packets, and even presented our work as a scientific article. While we trust that these will be helpful to the community, our expectation, however, would be for the Bluetooth SIG to ensure an ample supply of developer-friendly documentation and accessible tools.

“Return of the MAC”: emerging etiquette

Another powerful feature of BLE is the option to “advertise” a random, rather than static, 48-bit identifier. A device therefore has the option to identify itself three ways, using a:

  • static, IEEE-assigned identifier
  • static, randomly-generated identifier
  • periodically-changing, randomly-generated identifier

If we imagine the use case of a retail store “observing” the occupants via their “advertising” BLE devices, these three options offer the following possibilities, respectively:

  • device can be recognised on subsequent visits, chipset manufacturer can be looked up
  • device can be recognised on subsequent visits
  • device cannot be recognised on subsequent visits

Indeed, the retail use case is the one for which we receive the most inquiries. Given privacy concerns, one might expect an emergent etiquette around how the devices we’re likely to carry or wear into a store identify themselves. Consistent behaviour across devices would expedite adoption in retail, however, our answer to such inquiries about identification continues to be “it’s complicated”, and here’s why.

Apple’s iOS devices, which were among the first to embrace BLE technology, can be commended for electing to change their identifier every 15 minutes or so. This ensures privacy by preventing someone from being recognised as a repeat visitor to a store, yet allows their in-store journey to be anonymously tracked for the duration of that period. For us, that strikes a healthy balance of benefits for both the client and the retailer.

Android devices originally embraced BLE technology haphazardly, tending at first to static identifiers. However, from Android 5 onwards, like in iOS, periodically-changing identifiers are employed. At the Place Conference, we asked Chandu Thota, Director of Engineering at Google, what one thing he’d like to see improve faster. His answer was the convergence of behaviour among the diverse BLE hardware and firmware in the mobile devices running Android. Indeed, without that challenge first resolved for Android, it’s unreasonable to expect any refinement of etiquette!

And then there’s Fitbit.

I bought my Fitbit Charge HR in March 2015, and 18 months later, it’s still advertising the same identifier every second-and-a-half or so.

Clearly a different approach to identification and privacy than the mobile platforms… We tweeted Fitbit about this, but the behaviour remains the same with subsequent firmware updates. Care to know where the Fitbit-wearing author of this article is right now? Simply ask our open API whereis d9:01:4f:6b:a8:b2 or what is the contextnear d9:01:4f:6b:a8:b2? We’ve seen the same from other wearables vendors such as Xiaomi, but given Fitbit’s technical know-how and dominant market share, highlighted by the number of their devices our platform detects, it’s curious that they haven’t yet moved to protect privacy by occasionally cycling their identifiers!

FYX and Nearables cycling identifiers

Finally, on the other extreme, there are devices which go so far as to change their identifier on each subsequent transmission. We’ve observed both Qualcomm’s FYX beacon and Estimote’s Nearables exhibiting this behaviour. Curiously, the latter includes a static 64-bit identifier as Manufacturer Specific Data, thereby completely voiding any potential motivation for privacy or security! The result of this behaviour is that an “observer” sees the individual device as multiple devices, appearing and disappearing in sequence. Depending on how the vendor’s BLE stack handles this case, this would likely lead to inefficient use of memory and computing resources, possibly overwhelming or even crashing the stack! Perhaps not the best etiquette!

From the examples given, it is clear that there is an emergence of identification etiquette, at least for individual vendors across their various devices. However, the fragmented approaches across vendors result in a lack of cohesion, which remains to be overcome to establish an expected code of conduct within social norms.

Realising the enormous potential of BLE’s “advertising” capability

We cannot understate our belief in the enormous potential of BLE’s “advertising” capability, just as we argued at Bluetooth World in 2014. Should it not have been obvious before, yes our platform is “observing” everyone’s devices, yes we’re checking the rules (our platform cares), and yes we’re keen to benefit from the emergence of coherent etiquette across devices and vendors. Etiquette being an expected code of conduct within social norms, social interaction among us vendors and developers is paramount! Therefore, as a community of members of the Bluetooth SIG, perhaps if we improve our efforts to look out for one another (quite literally) and openly share our thoughts and concerns, as we’ve done here, we’ll expedite the emergence of a collective etiquette which is key to the widespread adoption of the first global standard for Active RFID!

The IoT as your Brand Ambassador

Since the coining of the term Internet of Things in 1999 by Kevin Ashton, the IoT has been described in myriad ways. Just as was the case twenty years ago with the Internet, we have a habit of predicting the future of a technology by standing in the present looking forward. But what if we change that perspective and imagine ourselves in the future looking back at today? We did exactly that, as the following video shows.

For how many years have you been building your digital brand on the Internet? Take a moment to imagine your digital self.

In cyberspace, you’re known as your digital self, your digital brand. In “meatspace”, you’re known as your physical self, a brand that millions of years of evolution as social animals has hard-wired us humans to both advertise and recognise. We’ve adapted to live in both of these worlds. And, in our futuristic hindsight, the Internet of Things is arguably the Internet’s adaptation to join us in the “meatspace” world.

Last month we showed how The Physical Web just got Personal, how you can today advertise your digital self on the same scale as your physical self, whenever and wherever you choose. You already have in your hand (or on your wrist) the technology to advertise your digital brand. So when and how will the IoT emerge as your brand ambassador, calmly delivering the right information at the right place at the right time?

Fortunately, we’re not alone in asking that question. In The Bank of Personal Data we discussed how Dr. Roberto Minerva, like us, argues for a broker model. And when you consider how much of your digital brand is locked up in the siloed “vaults” of social media platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn, e-commerce platforms from Amazon to niche brands, VC-backed grow-your-user-base-then-monetise apps, digital health platforms such as Fitbit and, of course, the almighty Google, expect an epic battle between these and emerging players to establish the dominant currency and exchange for this information, your information, in the real world in real time.

We conclude our video arguing that the (post-battle) IoT will make you a superhuman in the real world. It’s not the first time we’ve used that word, case in point our 2013 post IxD, the Superhuman and the Superorganism. Only recently, however, has the “how” come into focus, and we now see “what”, from a human perspective, the IoT may very well prove to be: a personal brand ambassador for each and every one of us.

Proximity in its Place

The 2016 Place Conference brought together the brands, retailers, agencies and technology companies pushing the envelope of cross-platform proximity marketing, indoor experiences and location analytics. We feel that organiser Greg Sterling of The LSA, in his introduction, most eloquently summarised in two slides why local matters:

Digital vs. Local

While we spend an increasing amount of time online, we still spend the majority of our money locally, close to work and home. The following is a brief summary of our takeaways from the conference.

Still educating, still adopting

“How many people here have had a real-world beacon experience?”

In a room of a hundred, a mere handful of hands were raised. This hammered home the point that although proximity experiences currently receive all the attention, the reality is that three years after the launch of the iBeacon with iOS 7, and with over 8 million proximity sensors deployed globally today according to Proxbook, the concept is still in its infancy. Instead, it was the presentations on location analytics, a less-glamorous subject, which boasted tangible, measurable results.

Erin Kienast of OMD, who successfully ran such a campaign with McDonald’s, said she spends a lot of time educating local media agencies about the power of location, and how they can use the data. Our experience has been the same. Indeed, while the national agencies may have the edge in education, the local agencies still outweigh them in terms of volume. Education precedes adoption, and a few turnkey solutions certainly wouldn’t hurt either.

We’re not making it easy

“We’re making it really hard for the CMO today” said Pehr Luedtke of Vanassis. “How do the CMOs understand the crazy landscape of location tech?”

Greg Sterling affirmed, “technology companies add complexity beyond what a human operator can be expected to handle.” We know. As a technology company, we’re as guilty of that as any of our peers that were in the room, but we’re working hard to improve. Our approach has been to approach retailers within a partner ecosystem where we master the location technology and our partners individually master the experience, marketing communications, change management, analytics and such. Technology companies should leave end-user-interaction to the experts.

New channel, new offer

“You can’t push the same offer through a digital channel” said Jay Hawkinson of SIM Partners. “You need to make a compelling location-based offer.”

Indeed it doesn’t make sense to make all the effort to meet the customer where they are, only then to serve them up a generic offer. But it certainly does take additional consideration to create the most relevant offer, and marketers need to be prepared. In our retail deployment experience, the impact of even a modestly tailored offer versus a generic offer was orders of magnitude greater. But our partners still had to push to make it happen!

Location accuracy: who cares?

Google doesn’t. Aisle411 does.

Place 2016: Location Accuracy

One can argue that they’re both right. In the case of absolute location, the traditional latitude-longitude measurement, accuracy dictates granularity. And for Aisle411, 30cm is the right granularity. However, in the case of semantic location, championed by both Google and ourselves, all that really matters is what’s nearby to the user. In other words it’s simply relative.

A light bulb just went off

“How many advertisers does it take to change a [connected] LED light bulb?” joked Google’s Frank van Diggelen.

Place 2016: Connected Lighting

Both Philips and Acuity shed light (pun intended) on the fact that one thing is for sure indoors: we’re always near a light. Internet-connected LED lighting overcomes the three challenges faced by location technology:

  1. persistent power
  2. consistent connectivity
  3. necessity of infrastructure

The combination of smartphones and connected lighting promises accurate location via beacons, WiFi, computer vision, magnetics, inertial and visible light communication (VLC). Curiously excluded from the list, however, was Bluetooth as a real-time location system (RTLS), essentially beacons in reverse.

Are people beacons too?

If smartphones act as beacons (as many wearables already do), then connected lighting could identify and locate the people carrying them. We first demonstrated the concept three years ago, using our own connected sensor infrastructure. Last week, to celebrate that anniversary, we proclaimed that The Physical Web just got Personal.

“Can people be considered places? In other words, can a person’s smartphone act as a beacon?” we asked Chandu Thota, Director of Engineering at Google. The answer, as we expected, was no, that’s not how Google sees it. Thota confirmed that we were not alone in advancing applications where the smartphone “advertises” itself to its surroundings. But the company behind Android, Eddystone and The Physical Web (at least) currently sees the smartphone exclusively as a receiver of what is nearby to its user.

Is the industry abusively smartphone-centric?

The smartphone is an incredible innovation which has revolutionised how brands can interact with their customers. Nonetheless, it is easy to argue, as one attendee did, that imagining those customers walking through stores with their eyes glued to their smartphones is downright dangerous! Case in point, this video.

Place 2016: Smartphone-Centricity

What we’ve heard from brick-and-mortar retailers is that they want to emphasise the human experience of shopping, aided by the tools pioneered by online retailers. For us, the smartphone-centric approach is at odds with that vision, instead emphasising the digital experience within a physical context.

Our hope for the next Place Conference is to see case studies of CMO-friendly end-to-end solutions which deliver delightful experiences with tangible results all the while keeping the smartphone in the users pocket to the extent possible. See you there!

Three years Beyond the Beacon: the Physical Web just got Personal

Three years ago today on this blog, we published Beyond the Beacon: BLE just got Reel. In honour of that anniversary, today we publish Three years Beyond the Beacon: the Physical Web just got Personal.

The original Beyond the Beacon post was prepared with a sense of urgency to coincide with Apple’s iOS7 release featuring iBeacon support. We were anxious to show our vision for Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology, which the iOS 7 release enabled for the first time. Despite being hastily recorded, the video accompanying the blog post quickly gathered over 10,000 views, in large part due to the provocative Loophole in iBeacon could let iPhones guard your likes instead of bombard you with coupons article in which it is featured. In that GigaOM article, Stacey Higginbotham writes:

[reelyActive] is perhaps a bit too far ahead of its time right now, in that it’s thinking beyond beacons to a fully connected world where a person’s preferences are communicated by their device and stored in the cloud.

Indeed we were too far ahead of our time back then. Fast-forward to today however, where we proudly share how we’ve assembled established technologies in a novel way to enable exactly the above. And, curiously, this time around it is instead Google whose products and projects have made this possible.

The Physical Web just got Personal

The animation above illustrates how the vision of communicating a person’s preferences via their device involves effectively two steps:

  1. the mobile device wirelessly advertises the source of a person’s data to any and all devices in range
  2. those devices query that source and receive structured data which represents the person in a standard way

In the retail example, this means that the data which a client chooses to share could be immediately discovered by a nearby employee with a smartphone, by digital signage, or by sensor infrastructure throughout the store itself. The onus is then on the latter to deliver a personalised experience to the client who would expect nothing less in return!

This is both technically and functionally viable today on recent Android devices where an app advertises, in a Google Eddystone packet sent over BLE, a URL pointing to the person’s hosted data (Step 1), and, any receiving device queries that URL in exchange for structured data in the standardised form of Schema.org and JSON-LD (Step 2). The recipient can easily make sense of the person’s data which is structured precisely as per Google and other search engines suggestion such that they may “organise and display it in creative ways”.

At the time of writing, iOS devices restrict what may be transmitted over BLE, preventing the use of Eddystone, a product of Google’s Physical Web project. However, if you have a recent Android device and a BLE-enabled computing device such as a Raspberry Pi 3, using reelyApp and our open source software suite, you can do exactly what we show in this video.

For those who like to look under the hood, the personal data is stored in a hosted json-silo, accessed using cormorant and rendered using cuttlefish. The Pi is set up from scratch following this tutorial.

Three years ago, Apple opened the door to smartphones advertising themselves to their surroundings. Over the past two years Google advanced projects to both identify and represent physical “things” in a standard way. While both companies continue to champion the smartphone-as-receiver model, we’re more excited than ever about the smartphone-as-transmitter model which literally flips advertising on its head, fostering a user-centric, opt-in model of real-time information sharing on a human scale. Thanks to emerging standards and just enough wiggle room for permissionless innovation, today we proudly proclaim that the Physical Web just got Personal.

Society can HOPE for a better Link

Last weekend, at the Eleventh HOPE, we took a front row seat for the talk entitled LinkNYC: Free Public Wi-Fi That Isn’t Free or Public knowing it would critically challenge the recent local deployment of connectivity infrastructure, not unlike that which is core to our vision.

LinkNYC is an infrastructure project currently being rolled out across New York City’s five boroughs, promising “Free super fast Wi-Fi. And that’s just the beginning”. This is achieved via up to 10,000 links, progressively replacing pay phones. Each link includes two large screens for advertising and PSAs, a tablet for interaction, 3 cameras and 30 sensors, and, of course, Wi-Fi, with plenty of bandwidth thanks to a dedicated fiber connection.

Free, widespread Internet connectivity for the masses, how brilliant! As we’ve previously argued, connectivity is the critical underlying fabric of not only the Internet, but life itself. Imagine what the promise of ubiquitous connectivity holds! That is, until you inspect the underlying fabric of LinkNYC as the Hackers On Planet Earth (HOPE) are so adept at doing.

Benjamin Dean, President of Iconoclast Tech and Fellow for Cyber Security and Internet Governance at Columbia SIPA, did exactly that in his presentation, raising what for us are two critical concerns regarding the future of ubiquitous connectivity infrastructure.

1. The digital business model is transposed to the physical

Dean illustrated that when you add up the published revenues and expenses, the corporate partners appear to lose $50M over the course of the project. This, of course, raises suspicions of an alternative revenue stream, which was clearly alluded to in the following quote from Don Doctoroff, head of Google/Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, one of the partners in the project.

“By having access to the browsing activity of people using the Wi-Fi — all anonymized and aggregated — we can actually then target ads to people in proximity and then obviously over time track them through lots of different things, like beacons and location services, as well as their browsing activity. So in effect what we’re doing is replicating the digital experience in physical space.” (Original source)

While there are definitely aspects of our collective digital experience we feel would be beneficially transposed to the physical world in the age of the Internet of Things, the advertising-driven business model certainly doesn’t top our list. Especially given Dean’s calculation that the project could be entirely publicly funded at a cost of fractions of a penny per citizen per day. Is that too much to ask? And would the economic benefits generated by ubiquitous connectivity alone not indirectly subsidise taxpayer investment in the project many times over?

2. Vague policies promote privatisation, not privacy

Given his background, Dean had no difficulties raising serious concerns with the privacy policies of the project. To paraphrase these policies (with no attempt to emulate his articulate analysis thereof):

  • we won’t do creepy stuff like facial recognition
  • we can share the data we collect with third parties
  • we won’t explicitly state anything that prevents them from doing creepy stuff

In other words, nothing appears to prevent your private information from ending up in the hands of private organisations. Perhaps not the organisations involved in the project, but at least those within their arms reach.

Contrast this to our privacy policy which we’ve done our utmost to keep short, clear and readable, and which concludes with the sentence:

Wish we had more to tell you but honestly, we really want to have as little as possible to do with your personal information aside from enabling you to share it when you want, where you want and with whom you want!

While we’re quite proud to champion the notion of users retaining the control of their data and with whom it is shared, the LinkNYC debate nonetheless reminds us of its fragility, given that nothing prevents subsequent layers of third party platforms from exercising policies analogous to the aforementioned. Perhaps a GPL-style privacy policy that influences/contaminates (depending on which side of the debate you’re on!) subsequent policies is the answer? Although for those who attended Richard Stallman’s talk at the same conference, it’s clear that such policies are controversial even within a sympathetic community!

And as for applying the digital advertising-driven business model to the physical world, we have a simple counter argument in economic terms: it’s an outdated, inefficient model. We’re in the early throes of an industrial revolution which will create overwhelming volumes of real-time contextual data, with, arguably, much more of it consensually shared, promising massive economic gains through efficiencies. However, in any revolution, the outgoing paradigm will coexist alongside the new for some time. While LinkNYC seems poised to continue to bet on the former, we’re confident that a growing number of startups, ourselves included, are betting wisely on the latter.

In conclusion, while there are clearly valid concerns around the LinkNYC project, overall the benefits of ubiquitous connectivity, free and public or not, are arguably positive. The history of the Internet suggests that the public will nonetheless overwhelmingly accept any such tradeoffs. A revolutionary change in the underlying business model is unlikely to come from public dissent, but rather from the sustainable competitive advantage of a new economic paradigm. Ultimately, we’d argue that the companies first to exploit that novel competitive advantage will enjoy the economic benefits, and bear the ethical responsibilities, of leading the way forward.

Investing in a Value-First Sharing Economy

Last month we had the pleasure of reading The Sharing Economy and subsequently meeting the author, Arun Sundararajan, with whom we shared our praise, at the New Cities Summit. The book, which we’ve added to our bibliography, eloquently ties together many of our pioneering thoughts on innovation and economics, which we’ll discuss here, starting with the economics which Sundararajan frames as follows:

The sharing economy, although not politically neutral, is creating a new economic model – an interesting middle ground between capitalism and socialism – that also appears to lend itself to fulfilling the desires and needs of people who identify with the extreme ends of both the economic and political spectrums. More importantly, it has developed an economic model that appears to lend itself to fulfilling the desires and needs of people who identify with neither of those extremes.

Conceptually, it seem paradoxical that a new economic model can benefit both those closest to and furthest from the extremes of traditional models. But, as we highlight in our blog post on the Pervasive Sharing Economy, scepticism wanes as even companies that have been notoriously slow to adapt are defying expectations:

General Motors, a company that long ago conspired to derail public transit to boost private vehicle ownership, just bet $500M on Lyft anticipating the end of said ownership!

In that post we argue that while the current sharing economy is largely limited to higher-value underutilised assets such as vehicles and real-estate, the proliferation of Internet of Things technologies will extend the marketplace to include the majority of everyday things from clothing to tools and beyond. However, unlocking this enormous potential is predicated on a significant investment in technology and infrastructure, a proposition which is today typically met with resistance. But such attitudes are clearly evolving, as evidenced by the book’s citation of a post by Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures discussing their investment in OB1 which develops the enabling technologies for OpenBazaar, “a free market for all with no fees or restrictions”:

How can a business that is consciously architected to undo network effect defensibility, one that is tearing down the walls and filling in the moats that every paper on market based competition has insisted are necessary for success … succeed?
OB1 will offer a set of value added services to buyers and sellers […] and they don’t expect to have any proprietary advantage over those competitors. As investors, we hope that their familiarity with the marketplace and the goodwill they generate as early sponsors of the open source project will give them an advantage but we understand they must execute very well or be left behind. (link)

While it is both refreshing and motivating, as startup entrepreneurs, to witness this shift in attitudes towards investment, we must point out that it is not access to capital alone which is gating progress. Policies and protocols play an equally important role as Sundararajan’s quote of Albert Wenger, also of Union Square Ventures, this time discussing Bitcoin, highlights:

Policy makers, however, need to understand the importance of protocols for enabling distributed permission-less innovation – that is innovation by many individuals and startups. For instance, the hypertext transport protocol (http) is what lets a browser talk to a web server – as long as the server implements the protocol it can deliver innovative content or services to any browser. HTTP itself builds on many other lower level protocols, such as DNA and TCP/IP. Historically, protocols have emerged from either research projects or from individuals / small groups simply throwing something out that sticks. (link)

Case in point, Vint Cerf, co-inventor of TCP/IP, and currently VP & Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, who we recently had the pleasure of meeting at an IEEE science conference. As we argue in Vint Cerf and the Good Fight for the IoT: “in our opinion, he is one of the few individuals applying a long-term vision to balance what’s optimal and what’s profitable for the still nascent Internet of Things”. Cerf equally argues for permissionless innovation. Without the Internet-enabling TCP/IP protocol he co-invented as a researcher, Google’s highly profitable business could not exist! At reelyActive, we thus stand by our approach of publishing protocols as science, upon which we build our innovative business, driven to execute very well or be left behind!

In the coming weeks reelyActive will celebrate its fourth anniversary. One might say that we’ll celebrate having survived four years (see threelyActive), as indeed our hybrid approach hasn’t made life easy under the existing paradigm. Nonetheless, the recent developments discussed in this post and in the book are enormously encouraging. So, what is the next economic paradigm? On that topic, Sundararajan argues the following, paraphrasing Douglass North:

[H]istory suggests that it is neither possible nor economically viable to simply adopt existing rules and apply them to a new economy. The challenge, then, is to determine what comes next.

What comes next is a value-first approach. Investment in the projects and startups developing enabling technologies, including the underlying open protocols, will unlock massive value, generated through permissionless innovation by their peers; value that will lend itself to fulfilling the desires and needs of people across the political-economic spectrum. Investment in massive value creation is Phase 1. Embracing this approach, investors, be they private, institutional or government, need only find a clever means to collect their fair share of the resultant massive value in order to profit more handsomely than could ever be afforded by the current economic paradigm.