I’s Can Internet All The Things

Everybody knows that episode of The Simpsons where they get the Pierce Brosnan voiced super house that does everything for them, making life a breeze. Well as technology gets smarter and smarter this fantasy home is quickly becoming a reality and in fact you can already purchase plenty of advanced home wares capable of auto tasking themselves to suit and simplify your life. Oh and did I mention these ones aren’t homicidal?

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These days we want everything to be smart and connected from our televisions to our pot plants. Did you know that since 2008 there are more inanimate objects connected to the net than people and this number grows exponentially each year? Off course I could sit here for hours writing about all the awesome smart gadgets your house needs right now but that would just make me sad because I can’t afford them. What I am really interested in discussing though, is the impact of the Internet of Things (IoT) on the retail industry.

“In simple terms, the IoT stands for the connection of usually trivial material objects to the internet … At the very least, this connectivity allows things to broadcast sensory data remotely, in the process augmenting material settings…  In most cases these objects are able to store and process information, as well as independently initiate action” (Teodor Mitew). Currently I work part time at my local IGA and every day that I walk up and down the isles checking the dates for expired products and writing down what stock needs to be re ordered on my little note pad, I think to myself, ‘for the love of God isn’t there some kind of automated system that could be doing this?’ While I’m working I daydream constantly about a world where each product is scanned before being put on the shelf and I can receive notifications about when it will go bad or when the stock is running low.

But that is just thinking about the benefits at a very fundamental level, there are so many more insights that can be gained from a connected grocery store. Food retail is unique in that it has a substantial components most other retail environments don’t have. For example the food’s freshness is relative to time and temperature whereas clothing retailers do not have to worry about that issue. Imagine a store where the fridges detected and automatically adjusted themselves after scanning the temperature of individual products, imagine digital price tags that updated themselves in real time according to daily specials. “Through implementing an effective Internet of Things strategy, retailers can significantly improve, automate and refine business processes, reduce operational costs, integrate channels and better understand consumer trends” (Hussmann).

Again there are so many more benefits to  a connected store, this whole time I have only been discussing the benefits for me, the worker, but what about the customer?  The Internet of Things means that customers can interact with the products on a deeper level. Smart trolleys have the potential to record highly specific data about an individual’s shopping habits. From there it can suggest products they are likely interested in, auto generate a shopping list based on previous purchases, show them the location of things in the store, tally the cost as they go and assist with budgeting, organise meal plans and even offer unique discounts or promotions. Imagine if quick a smart phone scan of any bar-code gave you recipes, reviews and a dietary rating, well you don’t have to imagine for too long because these are technologies that already exist and are on the cusp of widespread integration.

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Controlled Convenience or Chaotic Freedom?

Steve Jobs was responsible for revolutionising the computer age. When Apple released the Macintosh in 1984 it was the first time consumers were given a user-friendly means of interacting with a computer. The Macintosh introduced the first graphical user interface and was the first mass-market computer to be networkable. But while Apple brought us into the personal computer era their business model has practically reversed and seems hell bent on taking us out of it.

Apple products such as the IPhone have stopped being computing devices and have become simplistic information applications. They are incapable (by design) of operating anything outside of their designated software and they prevent users from accessing any internal elements; creating this shell of a computer that runs entirely off of face level applications. All content and the way you can interact with that content is controlled. You don’t own applications only pay to use them, you cannot change anything, install anything, transfer content and all the apps you can download have come from a centralised network that have gone through an intensive approval process.

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“It was easy to use, elegant and cool – and had lots of applications right out of the box… but the company quietly dropped a fundamental feature, one signalled by the dropping of ‘Computer’ from Apple Computer’s name” (Johnathan Zittrain).

“The fundamental difference between a PC and an Information Application is that a PC can run code from anywhere while Information Appliances remain tethered to makers desires, offering a more consistent and focused user experience at the expense of flexibility and innovation” (Jonathan Zittrain again).

While your phone not being a computer isn’t necessarily a bad thing as Steve Jobs himself proclaimed “You don’t want your phone to be like a PC. The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your phone and then you go to make a call and it doesn’t work anymore”. It is important to keep in mind though that the mobile phone has actually replaced the desktop as the primary mode of access to the internet. For millions of people, particularly those in developing nations their phone is their computer.

The Alliance of Open Handsets offer the polar opposite to Apple with their free Android operating system that can run on any device, can be completely rooted or moded and grants users access to both an official app store and unofficial ones. Plus you are allowed to upload your own aps. Originally Apple dominated the smart phone market but Android has now captured 85% of it, just going to show that a long tail of many small units will inevitably always out preform a lesser number of large ones.

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When Google first announced the alliance and the concept of Android, Steve predicted that the fragmented nature and uncontrollability of the idea would be its demise “I think it hurts them more than it helps, it is just going to divide them”.  While he was right about the division he was wrong about it being a negative. Eric Raymond believes networked systems always beat hierarchical ones because you can accomplish more and faster. He compares Cathedrals to Bazaars noting that if you release content early and often problems are resolved quickly by the sheer many. “Given enough eyes all bugs are shallow”. While Apples system of having a selected few make something perfect before release makes the task slow and monumental.

But in the end it all boils down to personal preference, Apples system ensures you are only buying something that has been carefully designed to ensure everything runs smoothly and easily whereas the Android system gives you everything good or bad; you have the power the chose and therefore the responsibility. It is just a question of if you want controlled convenience or chaotic freedom.