Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Apple and Google angle for control of the Internet of Things

May 27, 2014: 1:14 PM ET

Google has the smart thermostat guy. Apple may have a couple things up its sleeve.

Love songs for the smart house of tomorrow?

FORTUNE -- Nobody knows what the world is going to look like when the things around us get smarter -- when more and more of them are equipped with tiny radios that are connected to the Web.

Which is what makes the so-called Internet of Things (IoT, per Wikipedia) so interesting, especially now that Google (GOOG) and Apple (AAPL) have begun to show their hands.

Google has been experimenting with Internet-connected eye glasses, and in January it spent $3.2 billion to acquire Nest Labs, the leading purveyor of smart thermostats and smoke detectors. With Nest, it also got Tony Fadell, an ambitious ex-Apple engineering VP whose previous claim to fame was the iPod.

Apple has been seeding its stores with iBeacons -- miniature BlueTooth detectors for communicating with iPhones -- and it is rumored to be set to unveil, perhaps as early as next week's developers conference, two new platforms: One for monitoring your health and one forcontrolling your home.

Who will make tomorrow's smart devices and how they will interact with one another is anybody's guess.

"One vision," writes Benedict Evans, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, "is that all these devices will work on common, open standards, and talk to each other and interact in clever ways. And so, if you walk into the house with someone your security camera doesn't recognise and your calendar mentions 'date', some sort of unified learning-based system will dim the lights, turn up the thermostat and start playing Barry White."

The Barry White scenario is unlikely, Evans points out, given the history of earlier technologies that achieved First World ubiquity -- the small electric motor, for example, or the computer chip. They generally don't share data unless they come packaged in a single device -- a well-eqipped automobile, for example.

Apple and Google would love to be the company that cashes in on -- or at least controls -- whatever turns out to be IoT equivalent of a modern automobile, with its hundreds of integrated chips and battery-powered activators. But they're approaching it from different angles -- angles that play to each's strengths.

"Many wearables feel like they should be satellites for a smartphone," writes Evans, "either as a remote sensor or a remote display, but the value ... comes from the cloud-based analytics: is it more useful to know how many hours you slept or to get big-data based suggestions as to when you should go to sleep and when you should set your alarm? iBeacon is [a] fascinating part of this dynamic, because iBeacons themselves are not connected to anything, but they add intelligence to the physical world. So every wall or retail display or suitcase or package can become a piece of data.

"That is, sometimes the device is dumb glass (or a dumb sensor), driven by the cloud. And sometime the cloud is dumb storage, driven by the device.

"There's an interesting Apple/Google dynamic here," writes Evans. "If most of these 'things' are some combination of smartphone satellite and cloud end-point, where is the value and control? Apple's hardware/software integration means it's best-placed to make things work well, but Google is better placed to do much of the cloud stuff."

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