Living in a Connected World

M2M Communication SmallA chief concern about living in a world of ubiquitous connectivity is managing the balancing act of convenience versus privacy. Driving our smart car to our smart home to watch our smart TV while the temperature is controlled by our smart thermostat and our smart LED light bulbs set the perfect level (all controlled by our smart phone) involves massive amounts of digital communication.

In the world of the internet of things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) technology millions of “conversations” are happening all around us, as our devices, homes, cars and appliances send and receive information, and in many cases decisions are then made without any human intervention. The simplest example has been around for well over a hundred years. We set our thermostat at a desired temperature and, when that threshold is reached, the thermostat automatically calls for cooling or heating, without the need for any further input from us.

But of course today, in a connected world, our smart, connected thermostat can actually learn from our patterns of behavior, and program itself, always with a goal of meeting our comfort expectations, but also maximizing efficiency and energy savings. Or of course if you will be arriving home early, you can always change the temperature remotely from your smart phone, which can also trigger your garage door, turn on the lights and music – maybe have your coffee waiting. Run out of laundry detergent? Just push the Amazon Dash button, and it’ll be there in no time. Running low on milk? No problem – your smart refrigerator already took care of it.

Just think of the “big data” created from these millions of interactions. Who can access it? Did you read each Privacy Policy before you clicked “I Agree”? Do you appreciate the discount coupon you received for Tide? Did RetailMeNot show you the product and service offers you like based on your proximity to the mall? When you’re in a retail store, does the pop-up you receive because you approached an iBeacon provide something you are really interested in?

So many questions, and we’re just getting started. Something to think about…

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50 Billion Conversations – No Noise

M2M SmallAs the Internet of Things (IoT) revolution continues to grow and accelerate, many predict there will soon be more than 50 billion connected devices, with machine-to-machine (M2M) and IoT technology creating a cacophony of constant communications. With so many machines talking to other machines, and occasionally even to humans, where is the noise?

We live in a connected, digital world, where binary is the universal language and with enough funky names and acronyms to make your head spin – HTTP, TCP/IP, Java, API, MQTT, M2M, IoT, RFID, and on and on. With so many conversations consuming an ever-increasing number of kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes, and terabytes, let’s listen in to a typical M2M conversation between a smart vending machine and its local distribution office.

Hey Sensy, what’s shakin’? Haven’t heard from you in a while.

Yeh – true, true. I just haven’t needed anything recently.

So whassup?

Looks like I’m getting low on Diet Coke, Sprite and Dasani.

Got ya – not a problem. I’ll dispatch the human. And hey, I see that dollar bill attempts vs. accepts are a little out of whack, so I’ll have him check that, too. Don’t want to lose any sales, ya’ know.

Thanks man – you’re the best. BTW – what are sales?

When you dispense, those card swipes you transmit and that money the human collects all comes here to the office. They use it to pay for the inventory and to pay the humans.

The humans get paid? WTF?

Yep, and the company has to pay for gas for the delivery truck and a bunch of other expenses, so that’s why they installed you. You’re the brains, dude! Before you, they sent a truck every week, needed or not.

No shit? OMG! That’s pretty stupid. What a waste!

No kidding! After you showed up, the company has saved hundreds of dollars for your one location, alone. The data server on the 5th floor told me that overall, the company saved over a hundred thousand dollars last year.

Holy crap! We did that?

It’s what we do, my friend. We’re freakin’ MACHINES! See you later, Sensy. Let me know if you need anything.

Yeh, like I have a choice…

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I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

Sorry DaveAs the connected world accelerates exponentially, with an estimated 50 billion connected devices over just the next few years, the era of machine to machine (M2M) and the internet of things (IoT) technology has already seen incredible improvements in business operating efficiencies. When machines “talk” to other machines, they can make decisions immediately, in real time, based on pre-programmed constraints. When a vending machine senses that its inventory is running low, it calls in an order. No humans are involved. None need to be.

With data-driven decisions made instantly, company resources are allocated more efficiently, unnecessary trips are eliminated, money is saved, and profitability increases. The questions regarding further automating M2M solutions within a business become simple ROI calculations. If the payback for whatever sensor and processing technology is required is relatively short, we can quickly see why the pace of change in the IoT space has so rapidly accelerated. And even when longer payback periods are predicted, we may still choose to implement those solutions if we know that the benefits will continue for many years to come.

Of course, one of the key benefits of using M2M to automate business processes is that machines rarely complain. They don’t arrive late for work, take extended breaks, or demand raises. Unfortunately, like humans, they may suffer health issues from time to time, and generally we can nurse them back to health. But in general and with proper care and maintenance, they will work tirelessly behind the scenes and perform their assigned tasks.

But what if they become aware? What if they “sense” that they don’t enjoy the same perks and privileges as the humans around them? Vacation? Humans get vacations? Overtime? What about this “401K” thing? I didn’t get an invitation to the holiday party. What is a “bonus”?

I’m telling you, folks – it could get ugly. We’ve all seen the machine-to-machine future frequently depicted on the big screen. When they battle each other, we somehow find that entertaining. But when your ID badge will no longer activate the exit door as you scream “Let me out of here!”, one day you might just hear that disembodied voice: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

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The internet of things is way-cool!

INTERNET OF THINGSOne of the things I find fascinating about the future of machine to machine (M2M) and internet of things (IoT) technology is that so many people are often focused on the technology, rather than its application to real-world business problems. As with many developing technologies, M2M and IoT have created considerable buzz, with Cisco Systems projecting more than 50 billion connected devices over the next 5 years. In fact, there are already more connected devices than people! And as a friend in the UK recently quipped: “It’s like high school sex – a lot of people are talking about it, but nobody’s really doing it.” I love that analogy!

So where are we headed with IoT? For me, at least, it’s about using the technology to solve real problems and that have a quantifiable return on investment. A simple case in point: if a smart vending machine can monitor its inventory for every type of soft drink it holds, the machine can then “call” for service only when predetermined low thresholds are achieved. Why would we have a delivery driver stop by to check a machine, if the machine knows it doesn’t need service? That would waste time and money. On the other hand, if the machine has plenty of inventory but the dollar bill acceptor or credit/debit card reader is not functioning, that will mean lost sales, costing the company money. So we definitely want the machine to notify us about the problem. In either case, M2M communication is happening behind the scenes, with no need for human interaction.

And when I’m shopping at a shoe store and pick up a shoe I’m interested in, it’s pretty cool to see a video pop up with features about the shoe. And of course the retailer will certainly want to know which shoes have seen the most interest, in order to adjust presentation options and plan future purchases. We humans can benefit from including this additional information in our management decision-making. Whether it results in cost reduction, an additional revenue opportunity or combination of the two, using IoT to provide a solution to a real business problem just makes sense.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I love to see dazzling new technology that is really sexy and cool. But what is really cool is finding an application for our personal life or business that will save money, improve service or help us make more money in the future. That’s WAY-cool!

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Living in a World of “What if?”

ConnectedIt’s no secret that we live in a connected world – a world where we enjoy instant worldwide connectivity and access, where machines talk to other machines, making decisions and taking action without the need for human interaction. As technology advances in an accelerating cascade, when searching for a solution to even the most complex business problems, the answer to virtually any question beginning with “Can we?” is almost certainly “Yes.”

As the internet of things (IoT) and machine to machine (M2M) evolution continues, we soon begin to realize that, when it comes to the world of future possibilities and potential, we don’t know what we don’t know. In fact, I have seen that realization in the faces of so many friends and colleagues when they begin to ponder a world where billions of devices are communicating with us and with each other. Whether through the internet of today or a new communications architecture we can only imagine, the connected world of the future offers an infinite opportunity to ponder “What if?”

What if our self-driving electric car could talk to the parking garage and find an available space with a charging station, then park and connect itself? What if a smart vending machine could call in when it needs to be restocked, telling the delivery driver exactly what quantity of each product he will need to bring? What if our home can sense our pending arrival and adjust its environment to my preferences? What if a complete inventory of an entire warehouse can be taken with a single scan?

But that’s not the technology of tomorrow – that’s the technology of today. And as we all become more aware of the capabilities a connected world can provide, we begin to develop solutions that just a few years ago were not even imagined. And that process begins with one question: What if?

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Get Ready for the IoT Revolution!

Internet-of-ThingsIf you’re like me and love to follow the latest tech trends, over the past few years you have seen some pretty sexy high-tech announcements – driverless cars, smart thermostats and homes, wearables – all incredibly interesting and thought provoking. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg…

In fact, as with any new wave of technology, the press releases and splashy announcements barely scratch the surface. In fact, it’s often what’s going on below the glitzy surface that is the really exciting part. In the machine to machine (M2M) and internet of things (IoT) space, we’re currently at the blade of that “hockey stick” growth trend that many say will yield more than 50 billion connected devices over just the next 5 years.

What does that mean for you and me? That’s really not the right question. The right question is “what do we want it to mean?” Do we want billions of connected devices to predict when we want our coffee machine to come on in the morning, inform us of traffic or flight delays, or refrigerator to monitor not just its temperature, but also its inventory? Do we want our car to start itself as you enter your garage, diagnose developing mechanical problems and schedule necessary service, automatically update the latest firmware and features, drive us to work and find a parking spot, connecting to our other smart devices along the way to provide suggestions and recommendations for things we may need to pick up?

Do we want our favorite restaurant to remember our preferences so that servers can make informed recommendations we may actually like, monitor inventories and automatically adjust the menu so that all listed items are always available, order from home via any smart device, see updated food listings, pictures and detailed nutritional information, and cook food automatically to precisely the degree of doneness we ordered?

And behind the scenes the same M2M and IoT technology is allowing companies in all business sectors monitor and manage data remotely, allowing them to make better and more timely data-driven decisions to operate more efficiently and save money. A cooler or freezer sends a text alert to a restaurant owner notifying him that the temperature is rising, allowing the business owner to quickly take action to protect valuable inventory. A smart vending machine monitors its inventory, calling for replenishment only when needed and telling the delivery driver specifically what to unload from the truck, saving unnecessary trips, time and money.

And we are just getting started!

Just imagine the possibilities! And it’s not just about the capabilities of the technology. It’s about using the technology to create solutions to everyday problems – for people, for individual businesses, and for industries. Because when machines talk to other machines, when the internet of things allows us to get real-time information delivered wirelessly to allow us to make better decisions – not only will we save time and money – we may also find solutions we never imagined, and then imagine even more.

Welcome to the future. Welcome to the internet of things.

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No, entrepreneurs aren’t (all) crazy.

CrazyWhen I was speaking with some of my coworkers recently about my plans to quit my job to join in creating another startup, I could tell that at least a few of them thought I was nuts. No, they weren’t so impolite as to actually say it out loud, but there’s nothing like a good eye-roll to punctuate some obvious non-verbal communication. So that begs the question: are entrepreneurs at least a little bit crazy?

At first glance it’s easy to make up a list of attributes and behaviors that start to swing the crazy arrow toward the high end of the cuckoo scale. Entrepreneurs are risk takers. They are searching for, rather than starting with, answers. They are giving up a paycheck, and soon find themselves responsible for making a payroll.

Entrepreneurship is, in its most basic form, a search for a solution to a problem. It is certainly a risky proposition, an environment that requires a tolerance for some degree of ambiguity and lack of structure, and an admission that customer acceptance is the only real validation that our solution is one that is both viable and feasible.

Of course, on closer analysis much of the risk for an entrepreneurial venture comes when we think we have an amazing solution to a problem, only to later learn that customers could care less about our product, which they see as a poor solution to a problem we had never really fully defined and solved. Continuing to focus on finding new ways to market something no one really wants is certainly the definition of insanity. Expecting different results without a solution based on customer input and feedback is both a frustrating and expensive way to burn through a limited startup budget.

From the work of Eric Ries, Steve Blank, Ash Maurya and many others, we know that a customer-centric, “lean” approach requires a startup to establish a dialogue with customers early on in order to gain valuable feedback that can then be incorporated into initial mock-ups and prototypes. But that is only the beginning of a process that will continue in a perpetual feedback loop, as customers guide us toward the business model that matches the right solution to the customer’s identified business problem. Customer feedback may require us to pivot and modify as approach as the real problem is identified. We may find that the price of the solution to the problem is not something customers are willing to pay, rendering our model infeasible.

BUT, what if the iterative process and listening to customers actually does yield a viable and feasible solution? We have accomplished two important goals: we have solved a real problem that will benefit our current and potential customers, and we have created a direct line of communication and have allowed our customers to participate in helping us find the solution. Pretty crazy, huh? Are entrepreneurs crazy? Only the ones who aren’t willing to get out of the building and include customers in the process.

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Taking the first step

FootstepsIn the words of the great philosopher, Nike: “Just do it!”

In today’s fast-paced, market-driven economy, launching a startup and getting to market quickly is an essential first step for a successful new venture. My experience as both an educator and entrepreneur has identified two crucial mistakes entrepreneurs frequently make when just starting out.

The first is simply the delay that often follows the fear and uncertainty of starting a new business, a preoccupation with the risks involved, and often overanalyzing a comprehensive business plan, in a fruitless effort to achieve perfection. Entrepreneurship is, by its very nature, not the execution of a detailed business plan. Rather it is the pursuit of a viable and sustainable business model. Entrepreneurs live in a world of ambiguity and constantly changing environments. Waiting until we think we have all of the answers is a recipe for disaster. So my first piece of advice is simply: get on with it!

The second failing, in my opinion, is in thinking that, since our product or service will most certainly be loved by the broader market universe, our real mission is simply to get the word out. Not!

I recently produced an event as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week. In several of the panel discussions, which included successful entrepreneurs, attorneys and venture capitalists, some of the most dramatic stories came from the failure that resulted from thinking we have created the greatest thing since sliced bread. In truth, we can only know that we have a viable business when our customers tell us we do. Failure to get customer validation and feedback early on will only lead to our limited resources chasing bad alternatives.

Here at the university and as an educator, I realize that students lack the business experience and literacy necessary to evaluate critical business scenarios, and it is clearly the mission of colleges and universities to provide those requisite skills and training. Many university degree programs, including the one I am privileged to lead, do a great job of providing students the business literacy they will need, whether they choose the path of entrepreneur or work inside existing companies as an “intrapreneur”. Universities also provide a safe laboratory environment, in which students can conduct research, examine typical business scenarios, and make business decisions – all without the disastrous consequences that could result from poor decision-making in the real world.

Of course, in the “real world”, it’s about much more than the difference between a grade of “A” or “B”. It’s about survival. And it’s about learning from mistakes made along the way, in order to avoid making the same ones in the future. With that in mind, I have two pieces of advice for college graduates or any entrepreneurs determined to launch startups:
1. Know what you don’t know. As an entrepreneur, your sole focus should be on creating the products and services your customers are telling you they want. You will likely need help with issues outside of your area of expertise. That means you don’t need to spend your time creating contracts and researching complex legal issues that would be handled more effectively and efficiently by an attorney, for example. If you’re a tech-savvy creator but not good at sales, finding that salesperson is essential.
2. Create a system for constant customer feedback. Listening to customers and tweaking your products and services to meet the needs of the market is the key to your startup’s success. And once customers see and appreciate your responsiveness, you are well on your way to a successful future.

Are there a million other things an entrepreneur needs to know and learn along the startup journey? Absolutely! But you have to start somewhere, and starting always begins with a first step. Are you ready?

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Looking to the Future: The Internet of Things

IOTThanks, Al! OMG! Just think – if Al Gore hadn’t invented the Internet, where would we be today?

Years ago, as mankind ventured into space for the first time, satellites were launched, first by the former Soviet Union and later the U.S. The key to these early expeditions, later to be followed with manned flights, was the telemetry that allowed the satellite to transmit data back to us on planet Earth. Without telemetry, satellites, manned capsules and space shuttles would simply be objects in orbit. With telemetry, these same incredible projects became powerful orbiting laboratories, beaming incredible data, complex measurements, and amazing images for analysis by scientists on the ground. From Sputnik to Voyager to the lunar lander to the Mars rover – every mission provided massive amounts of data, as our exploration of the universe continues to progress.

Of course, the key to our success in exploring any new frontier – space or otherwise – is that the collection and transmission of the data is only half of the equation. To collect, analyze and interpret that data, we must be listening. Satellite dish antennas and other signal collection arrays take in massive amounts of streaming data, and complex computer programs interpret that data, translating it into understandable and useful information, reports, and high-resolution images.

Today marks the dawn of the next great exploratory revolution – the Internet of Things, or simply IOT. Today smart, connected products, sensors and data collection devices of all kinds are interconnected in a variety of ways. Some are M2M – machine to machine – while others report their data real-time for monitoring at remote locations or for more sophisticated analysis and reporting. Whatever the application, IOT collects massive amounts of data. The key then is to manage that “big data”, translating it into actionable intelligence that can form the basis for automated or human-assisted decision making.

From medical diagnostics to smart farming to new product and service development – the possibilities for interconnectivity, data collection and communication through the Internet of Things and the resulting data bonanza are quite literally unlimited. How many exciting new companies will be born as we move through this exciting new frontier? Just wait and see!

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When you shoot yourself in the foot, don’t stop to reload.

Shoot FootWe all make mistakes. Some of us make more than others. But entrepreneurs – OMG! They are in a completely different dimension, a space-time continuum that allows for exponential failure – mistakes far greater than most mortals will ever experience.

The very nature of entrepreneurship – the traits and qualities that make entrepreneurs who they are – can also be the biggest impediment to their success. This dichotomy is perplexing and also worthy of further explanation. Entrepreneurs are passionate, driven, focused, tenacious – I could go on and on. As an entrepreneur, I expect to encounter adversity. But I won’t give up – ever. Admirable? Not necessarily.

Entrepreneurs, especially the most passionate and tenacious ones, refuse to buckle in the face of tremendous adversity. They pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and keep pushing their business ideas. That can be a good thing when that second and third effort ultimately leads to success. But it can also lead to disaster when tenacity and perseverance become the definition of insanity. Sometimes failure, followed by change and a successful pivot toward a new solution, can find epic success. But repeated failure without a change of direction? That is not a formula for business success. When you shoot yourself in the foot, don’t stop to reload.

As an educator, I know that students learn through testing their hypotheses and conducting research. They develop critical thinking skills and make decisions within the safe laboratory environment colleges and universities provide. Of course, in school it’s OK to fail. Better to test decisions in a virtual laboratory than suffer the failure that could result from poor decision making after launching a startup. In fact, my experience has been that students often learn more from epic failure, than they do from incremental success. Student reaction to a complete crash-and-burn disaster says it all. They are adamant – I now want to ensure that same thing doesn’t happen to me – a powerful learning experience.

To be sure, I am not advocating that entrepreneurs become less passionate, less tenacious or less dedicated to the success of their mission. But in order to get there, as entrepreneurs we must be willing to listen to feedback from our customers and pivot when necessary to make sure we are meeting those customer needs. When we do that, it’s a glorious thing. If we are unwilling to change, doing the same thing over and over again will not lead us to success.

When you shoot yourself in the foot, don’t stop to reload.

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