One of the truly wonderful aspects of the “Internet of Things” is the explosion of “maker” related activities. The emergence of devices such as Arduino, Raspberry Pi and so forth, along with their surrounding ecosystems, have allowed hobbyists around the world to play with devices in ways that even five years ago were not possible.
Now this explosion in maker related activities is both well documented and well understood. What, thus far, has been less commented on are the concepts of trust and fear which are manifesting themselves with technology practitioners.
When you take a device like an Ardunio it is possible for one person to understand all of its component parts, what the hardware, software and so forth do, all of the possible error states etc. This type of understanding is at the core of what technologists do for a living – they understand a set of technologies, and they understand how they are put together. This understanding, however, is limited to an essentially closed system. It may be a broad system of many parts, but it is still contained.
Until very recently technology teams within medium to large organizations have controlled their infrastructure, their software stack and by extension their business users. It may be outsourced in some ways, but the complexity is more or less understood by a small team of people. Ultimately it is a closed system.
Business Model Changes
Stepping back and looking at the markets that are being created by the Internet of Things, and indeed by other digital trends, we see two fundamental shifts occurring
- Service Inversion
- Technological Partnerships
Both of these areas are long posts in and of themselves, but lets quickly touch on them.
Service Inversion and the Subscription Economy
The industrial Internet of Things is driving an inversion to the classic services model many businesses have created over the last fifty years. Nothing in this is new, the concept of proactive services is well embedded in many industries – but it generally comes at a pretty hefty premium.
If you take, for example, a refrigeration system used in a supermarket, the old model was for the system to break, a bunch of food to go off, the supermarket to phone the manufacturer to have a service engineer dispatched and eventually the unit is repaired, the supermarket restocks the unit and we start the cycle again.
Now for the company providing the service to the refrigerator this results in some extra revenue – the classic break fix revenue many service companies are addicted too – but for everyone else the experience is less than satisfactory.
With a combination of cheap sensors and connectivity it is now practical to proactively monitor low cost units, and remove this break-fix cycle. Too the supermarket owner there is much more value in the unit never having an issue – something they are happy to pay for.
This changes the model of how you deliver a service. You no longer wait for the break fix call, rather your customer subscribes to your service and you ensure the call never happens. This changes the relationship, as a business you are now a service provider. Your client is subscribing to your service.
It no longer makes sense to “go it alone” and create all of the systems you need as a business. From telemetry gathering and aggregation, to CRM and support systems, to business intelligence systems there are a host of providers who can provide you with the technology you need to focus on the business problem you are solving, not the technological problems underneath.
As we deal with greater and greater scale these technological partnerships will only grow. Infrastructure, and this also means your supporting business systems, is a commodity. It is also an open system, one which you must trust.
Trust and Fear
At a recent presentation in London Mark Shuttleworth of Canonical touched on the concept of trust within computing – trust and the need to trust partners and ecosystems to do what we have hither to sought to understand in depth. It was in the context of broader shifts in the industry, but he highlighted the need for trust and the innate fear of not understanding displayed by technologists.
What truly brought this fear within technologists home to me was listening to some of the questions at the same event Mark was speaking at. One question, paraphrased here, was “e-mail is essentially a well defined service, understood for the last twenty years, but for some marketing reason we all outsource it”. And the statement is indeed true. E-mail is also a reasonably complex service to maintain at any sort of scale, which requires an expensive to acquire set of skills. But on a business level there is zero value to running an e-mail server.
The question could be rephrased as “we understand how to do this, its something we control, why let it go”. That is the fear aspect. Once you move your e-mail to a provider like Microsoft or Google, you have let go of the control. You have also placed your trust in a third party body that you have, at best, a service level agreement with.
This is just a single piece of infrastructure – this fear becomes much starker when you start layering multiple technologies, and you can’t control the underlying components.
Now how does all of this result in the end of the polyglot?
Most large organizations, particularly heavily technology focused ones, will have a number of truly gifted technologists working in them. These are the people you see at the conferences, who are active in communities, attend the meetups on their own time and who devour technical implementation details. They may have a title, they may not, but we all know them. They can delve into the guts of a kernel, architect a distributed system, design an api and understand the business needs.
Right now they are facing an onslaught of technologies, and indeed are already starting to retrench in areas such as programming languages as Stephen O’Grady notes. These technologists are fast approaching a point of being unable to truly understand each component piece of technology they may be using. Their polyglot nature is threatened by the sheer volume of change which they are facing.
This is not a new trend. It is just an extension of specialization that we see in many industries. It is however something new for the top tier of technologists to understand. This is where trust comes in – learning to trust the decisions of others for the components you are building upon and the partners you are using.
We have reached a tipping point where it is no longer possible, and indeed it no longer makes sense, to try an understand everything around the technologies a business uses. This is a scary place for people who want to understand everything they use, and design upon, to find themselves.
It will, however, result in the end of the polyglot. And to an ever expanding maker community where you will find technologists who want to understand everything they are using.