The Revolution is Coming… You might barely notice.

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In a little over five years from now, there will be nearly 10x as many non-mobile connected devices on the planet than humans.¹ That’s 20x more connected things than there are smartphones today, and they will have arrived in almost half the time as it took mobile phones.²

Do you remember the world before smartphones? I barely do; the mobile revolution gave us handheld Google maps, Instagram, and the effective ability to work remotely. The connected hardware revolution will change everything again, and perhaps, given their numbers, have an even larger impact than mobile phones did.

But because of the incremental way that IoT devices and experiences will emerge into the world, and our lives; we might barely notice the revolution at all.

Computing Shift to Microcontrollers

There’s a computing device shift change happening; in the foreseeable future, the dominant form of computing on earth will undergo a major shift to microcontrollers, because they can do nearly everything a computer can do, at a cost of $2.³ That includes AI skills like machine vision⁴, complex hardware control, drive touchscreens, and connect to the internet and other things around them. They also use so little electricity that they can be powered from a coin cell battery for years, or work indefinitely with a small solar cell or plugged into a network via Power over Ethernet (PoE). And this extremely small power draw means that connected things will be put in places previously unimaginable, further expanding their numbers.

But you might not even really notice them.

Because of the nature of how connected technology enters our lives, we may barely notice.

Mobile entered into our lives via a pocket touchscreen supercomputer. But unlike the iPhone, which spurred the mobile revolution, there is no “hero” device or experience. Similarly, there is no “App Store.” In fact, most of what consumers will notice, in terms of IoT, represents a fraction of the overall market; industrial and commercial IoT spends already outclass consumer IoT by a factor of more than five⁵.

This means that connected things will enter our lives gradually. In a few years, it’ll be difficult to buy a consumer appliance that isn’t smart, and connected. Certainly we’ll be changed by those innovations, but much like watching a child grow, the incremental (and potentially, rapid) change won’t strike us the same way that putting a smartphone in our hand did.

With that said, however, it will rapidly and massively transform industrial processes and commercial installations, and we have some idea of its possibilities. Probably one the easiest metrics in which to examine the revolution, is in terms of dollars.

Economic Impact

The economic impact of the hardware revolution will be just as massive as its install base. It’s estimated that a whopping USD $1 Trillion will be spent on IoT per year by 2020⁶. To put that in perspective, that’s 4x more than big data and AI combined⁷. And just as with the mobile revolution, personal and corporate fortunes will be won here, and for those businesses affected by IoT that fail to react; fortunes will be lost.

This is the technology that professional developers should be eyeing and learning today; because it’s going to have a profound impact on careers. Just as there is a high demand for mobile developers right now, in five years, recruiters will be knocking down doors to find folks who can do hardware.

Human Impact

And speaking of people, it’s difficult to comprehend the size of effect that this leap forward in technology will have on humanity, because it’s impossible to predict the myriad of things that will be created. Just as money was made in mobile doing things that in hindsight seem obvious, but were as impossible to predict as the use of the wheel⁸, or Tinder, for that matter.⁹

Nonetheless, by the numbers alone, we know that it’s going to move a lot of wealth around. And based on the feature possibilities of connected things, it’s going give a tremendous more amount of power over the world around us.

Connected and Artificially Intelligent Everything

It’s also going to be a constant and ubiquitous, if sometimes transparent, experience.

Not only will we be able to connect nearly everything, but we’ll be able to give nearly everything some intelligence; machine learning and other AI tasks run incredibly well on microcontrollers. Couple that with commodity sensors and a lower energy profile that allows us to put them nearly anywhere, and it’s a game changer.

We’ll be able to collect data everywhere. For industrial IoT, that means that we can know exactly how well a machine, infrastructure, or a process is performing. We can tune outputs and increase yields. We’ll be able to prevent many unplanned outages by having real-time machine health information, and the ability to do targeted, preventative maintenance, solving problems before they happen.

Combine that with systems management via the cloud, and it’ll also give us a massive leg up on our ability to automate industrial processes.

Early Wins

By the numbers, we’re still in the pre-dawn stages of the connected hardware revolution, but we’re already seeing some interesting things happen in the space. While there is no ‘App Store’ equivalent, where you can see the latest great thing someone has created, there is a rough analog, at least for consumer connected things. Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Crowd Supply are already providing an interesting bellwether of future innovations.

Some notable examples that have come from these platforms include:

  • Skybell, a Ring-like doorbell raised $600k¹⁰ on Indiegogo.
  • Tile, a thing-finding device raised $2.6MM¹¹ on Kickstarter.
  • Pebble, a smartwatch raised $10MM on Kickstarter.
  • Alpine Labs, raised over $2MM across 4 varying campaigns on Kickstarter¹².

There have also been some big acquisitions; Ring was purchased by Amazon for $1B, and Google gobbled up Nest for $3b.

Big Opportunities Ahead

However, despite these early wins, it’s likely that we have seen a fraction of what’s to come. And the real magical solutions will come from IoT are impossible to forecast, because they rely on the imaginations of those building them. But one thing is pretty certain at this point; connected things are going to transform our relationship to technology and the world.

P.S., Check out our Kickstarter

Are you developer reading this thinking, “ok, I get it; connect things is going to be huge, and I don’t want to miss out, but I’m not sure where to start?” We recently launched a Kickstarter for Meadow, which aims to make building connected things as easy as developing mobile or web apps. Meadow is a full-stack IoT platform built for professional developers that brings full .Net Standard 2.x apps to microcontrollers.

It’s the world’s only IoT microcontroller platform that allows you to use a modern full-featured framework and makes hardware development a plug-and-play experience with built in peripheral drivers, hardware APIs, and more. Check it out here!

Footnotes

  1. Non-mobile connected things is expected to hit 75B by 2025.
  2. The mobile revolution took ~10 years to get to 4B devices after the release of the iPhone, de facto the world’s first commercial smartphone.
  3. The total embedded cost (including necessary supporting components) of an ESP32 chip, which has WiFi and Bluetooth is around $5 today, and as with all computing prices, that will get cheaper. Compare that cost to an app microprocessor System on Chip (SoC) like the ones used on Raspberry Pi or Microsoft Sphere board, which have a total embedded cost of around $45–50, or nearly ten times as much.
  4. See Pete Warden (head of TensorFlow at Google)’s excellent article, Why the Future of Machine Learning is Tiny
  5. 2018 IoT spend breakdown; manufacturing: $189B, transportation: $85B, utilities: $73B, shared: $92B, and consumer: $62B. Total non-consumer, non-shared IoT spend in 2018 is $347B vs. $62B consumer. Source IDC.
  6. IDC.
  7. Big data is expected to reach $210B/year by 2020 , and AI is expected to reach $43B/year by then.
  8. By the way, the wheel is less than 6,000 years old. Smithsonian Mag.
  9. Unless you consider “Carousel” in the excellent 70s sci-fi nerd film, Logan’s Run.
  10. Forbes
  11. Forbes
  12. BuiltInColorado.com

Written by

Bryan Costanich is a cofounder and CEO of Wilderness Labs; a startup dedicated to making hardware development as fast and easy as software.

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