The Fourth Age of the Internet – the Internet of Things

We are now in what I call the “Fourth Age” of the Internet.  The First Age was the original interconnected network (or “Internet”) of computers using the TCP/IP protocol, with “killer apps” such as e-mail, telnet, FTP, and Gopher mostly used by the US government and educational organizations. The Second Age began with the creation of the HTTP protocol in 1990 and the original static World Wide Web (Web 1.0). The birth of the consumer internet, the advent of e-commerce, and 90’s dot-com boom (and bust in the early 2000’s) occurred during the Second Age. The Third Age began in the 2000’s with the rise of user-generated content, dynamic web pages, and web-based applications (Web 2.0). The Third Age has seen the advent of cloud computing, mobile and embedded commerce, complex e-marketing, viral online content, real-time Internet communication, and Internet and Web access through smartphones and tablets. The Fourth Age is the explosion of Internet-connected devices, and the corresponding explosion of data generated by these devices – the “Internet of Things” through which the Internet further moves from something we use actively to something our devices use actively, and we use passively. The Internet of Things has the potential to dramatically alter how we live and work.

As we move deeper into the Fourth Age, there are three things which need to be considered and addressed by businesses, consumers and others invested in the consumer Internet of Things:

  • The terms consumers associate with the Internet of Things, e.g., “smart devices,” should be defined before “smart device” and “Internet of Things device” become synonymous in the minds of consumers.  As more companies, retailers, manufacturers, and others jump on the “connected world” bandwagon, more and more devices are being labeled as “smart devices.”  We have smart TVs, smart toasters, smart fitness trackers, smart watches, smart luggage tags, and more (computers, smartphones and tables belong in a separate category). But what does “smart” mean?  To me, a “smart device” is one that has the ability not only to collect and process data and take general actions based on the data (e.g., sound an alarm), but can be configured to take user-configured actions (e.g., send a text alert to a specified email address) and/or can share information with another device (e.g., a monitoring unit which connects wirelessly to a base station). But does a “smart device” automatically mean one connected to the Internet of Things?  I would argue that it does not.

Throughout its Ages, the Internet has connected different types of devices using a common protocol, e.g., TCP/IP for computers and servers, HTTP for web-enabled devices. A smart device must do something similar to be connected to the Internet of Things. However, there is no single standard communications protocol or method for IoT devices. If a smart device uses one of the emerging IoT communications protocols such as Zigbee or Z-Wave (“IoT Protocols”), or has an open API to allow other devices and device ecosystems such as SmartThings, Wink or IFTTT to connect to it (“IoT APIs”), it’s an IoT-connected smart device, or “IoT device.” If a device doesn’t use IoT Protocols or support IoT APIs, it may be a smart device, but it’s not an IoT device. For example, a water leak monitor that sounds a loud alarm if it detects water is a device.  A water leak monitor that sends an alert to a smartphone app via a central hub, but cannot connect to other devices or device ecosystems, is a smart device.  Only if that device uses an IoT Protocol or support IoT APIs to allow it to interconnect with other devices or device ecosystems is an IoT device.

“Organic” began as a term to define natural methods of farming.  However, over time it became overused and synonymous with “healthy.”  Players in the consumer IoT space should be careful not to let key IoT terminology suffer the same fate. Defining what makes a smart device part of the Internet of Things will be essential as smart devices continue to proliferate.

  • Smart devices and IoT devices exacerbate network and device security issues. Consumers embracing the Internet of Things and connected homes may not realize that adding smart devices and IoT devices to a home network can create new security issues and headaches. For example, a wearable device with a Bluetooth security vulnerability could be infected with malware while you’re using it, and infect your home network once you return and sync it with your home computer or device.  While there are proposals for a common set of security and privacy controls for IoT devices such as the IoT Trust Framework, nothing has been adopted by the industry as of yet.

Think of your home network, and your connected devices, like landscaping.  You can install a little or a lot, all at one or over time.  Often, you have a professional do it to ensure it is done right. Once it’s installed, you can’t just forget about it — you have to care for it, through watering, trimming, etc. Occasionally, you may need to apply treatments to avoid diseases. If you don’t care for your landscaping, it will get overgrown; weeds, invasive plants (some poisonous) and diseases may find their way in; and you ultimately have a bigger, harder, more expensive mess to clean up later on.

You need to tend your home network like landscaping, only if you don’t tend your home network the consequences can be much worse than overgrown shrubbery. Many consumers are less comfortable tinkering with computers than they are tinkering with landscaping.  Router and smart device manufacturers periodically update the embedded software (or “firmware”) that runs those devices to fix bugs and to address security vulnerabilities. Software and app developers similarly periodically release updated software. Consumers need to monitor for updates to firmware and software regularly, and apply them promptly once available.  If a device manufacturer goes out of business or stops supporting a device, consider replacing it as it will no longer receive security updates. Routers need to be properly configured, with usernames and strong passwords set, encryption enabled, network names (SSID) configured, etc.  Consumers with a connected home setup should consider a high-speed router with sufficient bandwidth such as 802.11ac or 802.11n.

The third party managed IT services industry has existed since the Second Age. As connected homes proliferate resulting in complex connected home infrastructure, there is an opportunity for “managed home IT” to become a viable business model.  I expect companies currently offering consumer-focused computer repair and home networking services will look hard at adding connected home management services (installation, monitoring, penetration testing, etc.) as a new subscription-based service.

  • Smart device companies need to think of what they can/can’t, and should/shouldn’t, do with data generated from their devices.  IoT devices and smart devices, and connected home technologies and gateways, generate a lot of data.  Smart/IoT device manufacturers and connected home providers need to think about how to store, process and dispose of this data.  Prior to the Internet of Things, behavioral data was gathered through the websites you viewed, the searches you ran, the links you clicked – “online behavioral data.”  The IoT is a game-changer. Now, what users do in the real world with their connected devices can translate to a new class of behavioral data – “device behavioral data.” Smart/IoT device manufacturers, and connected home providers, will need to understand what legal boundaries govern their use of device behavioral data, and how existing laws (e.g., COPPA) apply to the collection and use of data through new technologies. Additionally, companies must look at what industry best practices, industry guidelines and rules, consumer expectations and sentiment, and other non-legal contours shape what companies should and should not do with the data, even if the use is legal.  Companies must consider how long to keep data, and how to ensure it’s purged out of their systems once the retention period ends.

IoT and smart device companies, and connected home service and technology providers, should build privacy and data management compliance into the design of their devices and their systems by adopting a “security by design” and “privacy by design” mindset. Consumers expect that personal data about them will be kept secure and not misused. They must ensure their own privacy policies clearly say what they do with device behavioral data, and not do anything outside the boundaries of their privacy policy (“say what you do, do what you say”). Consider contextual disclosures making sure the consumer clearly understands what you do with device behavioral data.  Each new Age of the Internet has seen the FTC, state Attorneys General, and other consumer regulatory bodies look at how companies are using consumer data, and make examples of those they believe are misusing it. The Fourth Age will be no different. Companies seeking to monetize device behavioral data must make sure that they have a focus on data compliance.

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