If you read the headlines on the Internet after Eric Schmidt spoke at the World Economic Forum, you’d be forgiven for thinking there won’t be an Internet on which to read Eric Schmidt headlines much longer.
The executive chairman of Google used the words “the Internet will disappear” when asked for his predictions Thursday, and that statement — unusual and provocative when taken out of context — lead just about every story on the tech side of the WEF gathering in Davos, Switzerland.
In fact, what Schmidt was talking about was the same vague concept at which many a tech business leader has been hammering away in recent months: the Internet of Things.
“There will be so many IP addresses, so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with that you won’t even sense it,” Schmidt said on a panel titled “The Future of the Digital Economy.” He continued:
It will be part of your presence all the time. Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic. And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room. A highly personalized, highly interactive and very, very interesting world emerges.
Schmidt is using “disappear” in the sense of “become so ubiquitous that you won’t even notice it.” And in one sense, he’s right — we are going to see billions more smart devices coming online over the next decade. But that may not change as many things as Schmidt suggests — or bring us into a seamless world where we don’t ever think of being online or offline.
The airy nature of Schmidt’s description betrays the main problem with the Internet of Things: Nobody can adequately explain what it means. So you walk into a room and “interact” with “the things going on in the room.” How, exactly? What is the utility, here?
When Samsung’s CEO attempted to answer this question at CES earlier this month, he came up with four examples: You walk through your front door, and the music that was playing on your smartphone’s headphones switches to your smart speakers. You get up from the couch, and your smart TV automatically knows to pause because its in-built cameras are watching you. An app tells you what’s going on with the bottles in your wine cellar.
Oh, yes, and when you walk into an auditorium like the one in which he was speaking, the CEO suggested, your smart seat knows to automatically start heating your butt. Seriously.
None of these examples withstand much scrutiny, nor do they solve a problem that any of us seem to be clamoring to solve. I don’t know about you, but I like that I have to take my headphones off and stop the music when I walk through the front door — it’s a natural pause, a chance to switch gears, to connect with my wife. Not only do I not want my TV to be watching me, I don’t want it to pause every time I get off the couch. Why stop the action just because I walked into the kitchen for a cold one?
That’s the problem with any Internet of Things discussion: As soon as you start talking about what happens when we walk into that highly connected room of which Schmidt spoke, you realize that our needs are utterly granular, dependent on the weather or our mood or personal preference or any one of a hundred quirky human factors. And so many of them are more easily solved by systems we already have in place (home stereos, remote controls).
As for the Internet becoming so ubiquitous that we don’t notice it? On a day-to-day level, that’s more a function of cellphone towers than anything else. Anyone with a smartphone knows there are certain points in a given day when you most certainly feel the lack of the Internet — and with more and more devices getting online, providing enough bandwidth for all of them is a greater problem than just providing more IP addresses. If Schmidt wants to commit to helping telecoms like Verizon and AT&T build out their LTE service, we’re all ears.
As Google’s executive chairman, part of Schmidt’s job is to travel the world, and make grand pronouncements; Google’s own executive bio page describes him as a “thought leader.” That’s nice, but it would be even nicer if he spent less time making for misleading headlines, and more time offering specifics. Read more…