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!

Vint Cerf and the Good Fight for the IoT

At the 2nd IEEE World Forum on Internet of Things we had the honour and privilege to hear Vint Cerf, a true role model and one of the fathers of the Internet, present a keynote on the IoT. More than that, we had the opportunity to snap the photo above as we shook his hand and thanked him for continuing to fight the good fight for the Internet (of Things). In this blog post, we’ll conclude on that comment, after we first discuss Dr. Cerf’s three pillars for the IoT and his three-pronged call to action.

The three pillars of IoT

Pillars of the IoT

In short, (1) the IoT will be predicated on novel security and privacy mechanisms that facilitate rather than hinder the exchange of information, (2) will use open standards (much like the Internet itself), and, (3) will be experienced through more natural, human user interfaces. The following are our comments for each point:

  1. This pillar has been top of mind in every decision we’ve made since the outset, and is the reason we’ve ensured that the core of our platform processes anonymous device identifiers in real-time only (no storage). Hence all secure and private exchange of information can employ the emerging best practices on top of this core layer.
  2. Our firm belief in open standards is indeed what encouraged us to pursue science over patents early in our history, clearly an unconventional choice, as we were probably the only non-academic startup to present a paper at the conference!
  3. We’ll go as far to say that the IoT should be about No UI rather than New UI. Since Accelerator Day One we’ve championed presence-based user experiences through what we’d later refer to as invisible buttons, and we feel this is just one of the various means for humans to be seamlessly understood and engaged by technology without any conscious action required on their part.

The three-pronged call to action

Call to Action for IoT

First, we feel that the term permissionless innovation beautifully articulates what will make the IoT as dynamic, inclusive and pervasive as the Internet that Dr. Cerf himself was instrumental in animating. It’s not unlike the quote by George Whitesides that we feel is a simple mantra for the IoT:

“How do we make things as simple as we can, as cheap as we can, as functional as we can and as freely interconnectable as we can? If we make that kind of simplicity in our technology and then give it to you guys, you can go off and do all kinds of fabulous things with it.”

We made a conscious decision to keep our platform as simple yet versatile as possible, and it is one of the reasons that today we have clients and partners around the world innovating in everything from retail to parking to next-generation social networking.

Second, after an extended but patient wait, we feel that the open standards necessary to spark our arena of the IoT are finally in place. Specifically, Bluetooth Smart has emerged as the first global standard for connectionless identification, and the JSON-LD & Schema.org duo has finally (in 2015) been championed by Google, where Dr. Cerf serves as VP and Chief Internet Evangelist. These open standards facilitate the interoperability of devices and structured data, respectively, and now enable us to fully pursue our own vision in 2016.

Third, we agree that identity, access control and data management is an essential new ingredient that should be baked in to the IoT early on. Perhaps we’ll soon see the emergence of The Bank of Personal Data? Without such a mechanism, how could we in fact achieve our mission to unlock the value of the data you choose to share?

Call to Action for IoT

Why did we thank Vint Cerf for continuing to fight the good fight? 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, and, critically, continues to have one foot firmly planted in each academia and industry. And, from our experience, it’s an essential stance that turns out to be neither an easy position nor balance to hold!

As 2015 draws to a close, we salute all those who will fight the good fight for the Internet of Things in the New Year and beyond!