The graphical web as we know it is about to have its 20th anniversary. The first free downloadable graphical web browser ‘Mosaic‘ was launched in January 1993. In the past 20 years, the world has been reshaped no less dramatically than it was during the halcyon days of the industrial revolution which started in the 1750’s. And while it is clear that we are living through something like a 200 year shift, the shift can be segmented into easily definable parts when we pay attention to what has been happening.
The web, so far has had two distinct phases – from a commercial and a human perspective. The first was the connection of the infrastructure and the second was the connection of people. But now, we are about to enter a third and most interesting phase – The web of things. The web of things can be defined as a world where the web becomes so omnipresent that it becomes…invisible. It will be a world where everything and everyone is augmented via the web. You may be asking why anyone would want this and how it could relate to marketing and advertising, but before we do that, it is worth considering how we got here and why the web of things is inevitable.
The first phase of the web was the connection of the machines. This takes us all the way back to the 1960s when experiments in data transfer arose. Machines and code were being built so that previously separate forms of technology (largely mainframe computers) could talk to each other. The second phase was the one that confirmed this internet thing was not just a passing fad. In fact it was this part that caught the advertising industry napping and resulted in the largest disruption to human existence since we left the farms en masse. It was the connection of the people, the web 2.0 phenomenon, as it became known later, when we realised there was value in humans being connected to each other’s expertise, thoughts and creativity. The previously top down marketing models big brands lived by became yesteryear – turned upside down forever. Coined in the early 2000s, this phase was defined by the power of the people on the web, rather than the infrastructure providers themselves. This shift was made possible by ubiquitous cheap technology and a rethinking of platforms from a bottom up standpoint. Now that we have our invariably permanent connection to the web, we want more. We want everything we touch and experience to be augmented, bettered and digitally enhanced. Step forward phase three – the web of things.
The web of things is a vision where everyday devices, i.e. objects that contain an embedded device or computer, are connected by fully integrating them to the internet. This has been made possible by the dramatic deflation in both size and cost of the sophisticated technology, which enables the web. This includes microchips, cameras, GPS, sensors, RFID et al. The constant need for better and cheaper technology in smart phones has provided a classic scenario where the web of things can ride on the coat tails of innovation of what already lives in our pockets.
In order to provide some context of how cheap augmentation technology has become, the following price changes are enlightening: In 10 years, one gigabyte of memory has dropped from over US$12 to less than five cents and a single RFID chip is now a little over 10 cents. What this means is that technology that connects ‘things’ to the web is as disposable as the packaging it comes in. If we add to this consumers’ desire for all things to be connected to the web, then there is no stopping it from becoming a consumer and communications phenomenon that will dwarf the impact of the social web. After all, a web of things has direct financial implications and monetization potential.
What we have seen with web connected running shoes and refrigerators is just the tip of the proverbial ice berg. Imagine how we might be able to integrate communications with a fridge that knows exactly what is in it – everything we buy at the local supermarket is connected to the web. A world where, we can remotely control everything in our homes, where almost everything we buy can interact with us, other products, our smart phones, our friends and our media habits.
Let’s take the humble toothbrush – imagine it is web-enabled. All of a sudden we can directly reward usage and brand loyalty. The toothbrush will know how often and how long it is used for each day. So there would be nothing stopping the toothbrush manufacturer from coalescing with a dental health provider. The toothbrush brand could provide discounted insurance based on regularly tracked brushing and brand re-purchase, while insurance provider could benefit through reduced risk of poor dental health. A triangular loyalty and incentive programme which lives outside of in-store discounting. It is this kind of product/ service mash-up that entrepreneurs need to be thinking of. There’s plenty of evidence already that humans really like tracking their own behaviour – runkeeper for example.
As entrepreneurs, we have now got a chance to invent the commercial implications of the inevitable ‘web of things’. The social web has now connected us and introduced a new era for startups, so we should now take the lead and create consumer goods mash-ups and value equations which couldn’t exist in a world without connectivity. And just like the social web, we will only ever know what people want to track, share and do when we put our web of things startup in front of them.