Platforms for the Internet of Things: Opportunities and Risks

I was chairing a panel at the Internet of Things Expo in London today. One of the points for discussion was the rise of platforms related to the internet of things. As, by some estimates, the number of connected devices is predicted to exceed 50bn by 2020 so there is considerable desire to control the internet based platforms upon which these devices will rely. Before we think specifically about platforms for the Internet of Things it is worth pausing to think about platforms in general.

The idea of platforms is pretty simple – they are something flat we can build upon. In computing terms they are an evolving system of software which provides generativity [1]: the potential to innovate by capitalising on the features of the platform service to provide something more than the sum of its parts. They exhibit the economic concept of network effects [2] – that is their value increases as the number of users increases. The telephone, for example, was useless when only one person had one, but as the number of users increased so its value increased (owners could call more people). This in turn leads to lock-in effects and potential monopolisation: once a standard emerged there was considerable disincentive for existing users to switch, and, faced with competing standards, users will wisely choose a widely adopted incumbent standard (unless the new standard is considerably better or there is other incentives to switch). These network effects also influence suppliers – App developers focus on developing for the standard Android/iPhone platforms so increasing their value and creating a complex ecosystem of value.

Let’s now move to think further about this concept for the Internet of Things.  I worry somewhat about the emergence of strong commercial platforms for Internet of Things devices. IoT concerns things, whose value is derived from both their materiality and their internet-capability. When we purchase an “IoT” enabled street-light (for example) we are making a significant investment in the material streetlight as well as its Internetness. If IoT evolves like mobile phones this could lock us into the platform, and changing to an alternative platform would thus include high material cost (assuming , like mobiles, we are unable to alter software) as, unlike phones these devices are not regularly upgraded. This demonstrates platforms concern the distribution of control, and the platform provider has a strong incentive to seek to control the owners of the devices, and though this derive value from their platform over the long term. Also for many IoT devices (and particularly relevant for critical national infrastructure) this distribution of control does not correspond to distribution of risk, security and liability which many be significant for IoT devices.

There is also considerable incentive for platform creators to innovate their platform – developing new features and options to increase their value and so increase the scale and scope of their platform. This however creates potential instability in the platform – making evaluation of risk, security and liability over the long term exceedingly difficult. Further there is an incentive on platform owners to demand evolution from platform users (to drive greater value) potentially making older devices quickly redundant.

For important IoT devices (such as those used by government bodies), we might suggest that they seek to avoid these effects by harnessing open platforms based on collectively shared standards rather than singular controlled software platforms.  Open platforms are “freely available, standard definitions of service outcomes, processes, or technology that encourage multiple users to converge on utility consumption of services based on definitions – which in turn encourage suppliers to innovate around these commodities.”[3, 4]. In contrast to Open Source, Open platforms are not about the software – but about a collective standards agreement process in which standards are freely shared allowing the collective innovation around that standard. For example the 230v power-supply is a standard around which electricity generators, device manufacturers and consumers coalesce.

What are the lessons here?

(1) Wherever possible we should seek open platforms and promote the development of standards.

(2)  We must demand democratic accountability, and seek to exploit levers which ensure control over our infrastructure is reflective of need.

(3) We should seek to understand platforms as dynamic, evolving self-organising infrastructures not as static entities

References

  1. Zittrain, J.L., The Generative Internet. Harvard Law Review, 2006. 119(7): p. 1974-2040.
  2. Gawer, A. and M. Cusumano, Platform Leadership. 2002, Boston,MA: Harvard Business School Press.
  3. Brown, A., J. Fishenden, and M. Thompson, Digitizing Government. 2015.
  4. Fishenden, J. and M. Thompson, Digital Government, Open Architecture, and Innovation: Why Public Sector IT Will Never Be The Same Again. Journal of Public Administration, Research, and Theory, 2013.

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