Creating the next computing industry

How often do you interact with computers in a day? Likely on more occasions than you can count or even recognise! Can you remember a time when you didn’t interact with computers on a daily basis?

We’ve just added to our bibliography The Dream Machine, which recounts in splendid detail the history of interactive computing. It may come as a surprise that the essence of our modern computing paradigm (graphical user interfaces, personal computing, laser printing, Ethernet, …) was in working prototype form by the mid-seventies, the fruit of 5 years of corporate-funded research at Xerox PARC preceded by 8 years of government-funded research across US institutions through ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office.

The first director of that office, and the central figure in the book, is J.C.R. Licklider. Two years prior to taking that office, “Lick” would publish his vision of Man-Computer Symbiosis, envisaging the tight coupling of human brains and computing machines. Given that reelyActive’s vision can be summarised as computing machines understanding the world without reliance on human brains — arguably an extension of his vision — we asked ourselves what lessons we can learn from the history of interactive computing?

Coincidentally, we’ve had the recent pleasure of interacting with two key figures from the book: Vint Cerf and Alan Kay. Cerf’s three pillars for the IoT and his three-pronged call to action, which we discussed in Vint Cerf and the Good Fight for the IoT, resonate even stronger in light of this history. And Kay so eloquently reminded us:

“the goodness of the results is most highly correlated with the goodness of the funding”

Creating a whole new industry, as Kay and his colleagues effectively achieved at PARC, was contingent on good funding served with a good dose of patience: “I’ve never heard of VCs being interested in time frames like that”.

While Kay’s concern is very much consistent with our experiences fundraising as a startup, it is not without exceptions. In our blog post Investing in a Value-First Sharing Economy we highlighted an emerging investment philosophy best described as a two-step process:

  1. create the industry, open to competition
  2. out-execute any competition by leveraging the experience/goodwill gained

Clearly Xerox failed at Step 2 (the book examines this in detail). Incredibly, they’re not even the only textbook case among corporations headquartered in Rochester, NY! Remember Kodak and digital photography? Armed with so many lessons from history, especially concerning the execution of Step 2, would we not again expect good results from good funding, regardless of the funding source?

It has been four decades since the PARC breakthrough. The iPhone has now been around for a decade, today “tightly coupling” (or not!) our primary human-computer interaction through a 5″ screen. It is difficult to argue that this is the culmination of Licklider’s vision, but rather easy to argue that we’re (over)due for the next trillion-dollar computing industry. Goodness! With history as our collective guide, all that seems to be missing is some good funding sprinkled with a pinch of patience!

The next ambitious 5-year plan

To celebrate the five-year anniversary of reelyActive’s incorporation, we compiled the significant milestones of our history. Looking back at our origins, when our mission was to create the first simple and accessible cloud-based active RFID system we were reminded of the problems we were solving in 2012, namely:

A commercially-proven active RFID standard had yet to emerge
– we had to develop and build our own transmitter devices
– we had to develop and build our own receiver infrastructure

Every application was its own silo
– we had to educate clients and partners about the platform model
– we had to develop most applications from scratch

In essence, we were attempting to create both the technology and the market. We were confident about the former, our team benefiting from unparalleled domain experience. The latter, however, was a measured risk. Nonetheless, there was room for optimism thanks to a known, underserved need and to Wibree, the obscure radio protocol that had found itself a home in Bluetooth. Now, fast-forward to today, 2017:

Multiple commercially-proven RFID standards have emerged
– Bluetooth Low Energy became the de facto active standard by 2014
– RAIN RFID became the de facto passive standard almost simultaneously
– tens of billions of such radio-identifiable devices are already deployed!

An ecosystem of complementary technology platforms has emerged
– prospective clients and partners now expect the platform model
– we can forward data to third-party cloud applications in a single click
– smart lighting systems will soon displace our own infrastructure

In essence, the technology and the market now exist. We’re no longer obliged to build and deploy tags, infrastructure and applications. And we’re delighted to leave all that behind us!

Time for the next mission, one that we’ve eagerly awaited all along. It’s time now to make sense of the countless identifiable “things” detected and tracked by a heterogeneous mix of infrastructure generating unparalleled real-world contextual awareness that matters to countless applications. In short, to connect what’s going on in the real world right now with everyone who should rightfully know.

While that’s again quite the challenge, it’s certainly one that we look forward to looking back upon in another five years time!