The Internet of My Things

While purging clutter last night we discovered that we own four heating pads. That's an extreme case, but you may be familiar with the syndrome. You need something, you buy it, you use it, you put it away somewhere, and then the next time you need it you can't find it, so you buy another. I'll be the first to admit this is a problem of the first world. As is the solution I sometimes envision:

- Most things you buy come with unique IDs.

- At the point of sale, a thing's ID is transmitted to your personal cloud.

- As you move around your home, your phone senses the location of tagged things and updates their locations in your cloud inventory.

Of course we don't really need industrial-strength inventory control for our home. We could just get a lot more organized. But the technology is coming, and cloud-connected household inventories will be useful in all sorts of ways.

As usual my friend Phil Windley, whose distributed event technology I wrote about in the second installment of this series, isn't just imagining this future. He's helping to invent it:

"Kynetx is getting ready to introduce a product called SquareTag. SquareTag is a simple way to use personal clouds to keep track of things you own and imbue them with functionality they might not otherwise have." - Introducing SquareTag

So far these are mostly just passive tags with QR codes, but the system is technology-agnostic and will happily embrace RFID, NFC, you name it. What matters isn't the tag, it's the connection you forge between a tagged item and your personal cloud.

One of the first applications Phil envisions is annotation:

I have a note-taking application running on my furnace that lets me keep track of when I last changed the filter. The furnace's cloud keeps track of the filter I use, where I buy it, the HVAC installer I use for service, and so on.

Someday, perhaps soon, new appliances will arrive with these capabilities already built in. But why wait? And what about all the legacy appliances we already own? Let's connect them to the cloud now, Phil says, using the simplest and cheapest methods we can.

It's a great idea, not least because it will help drive demand for a new breed of cloud services. Consider automotive maintenance. The sticker on my windshield reported the date of my last oil change, but now it's fallen off, and in any case that sticker wasn't connected to my calendar. Instead of pasting a sticker on my windshield, I'd rather have the shop that did the last oil change poke an entry directly onto my calendar. But there's no easy and obvious way for me to authorize them to do that.

Phil's approach would be to keep a SquareTag in the car. When I scan it with my phone, it launches an app that talks to my personal cloud. In that app I'd only need to tap once or twice to say: "Oil was changed today." A companion cloud service would fire the rule that figures out when the next oil change is needed and posts that event onto my calendar.

Crucially that service doesn't belong to the shop that changes my oil. It belongs to me. But I'm not the only one who can use it. I can authorize other parties to use it as well. So that, for example, the shop can scan my tag and post a reminder to my calendar. How will my personal cloud authorize the shop's app? Maybe I scan their tag, the one posted next to the cash register, and assign calendar permissions (write-only, rate-limited) to the ID it represents.

This isn't just about all our things becoming smart, though they will, or about connecting our things to the Internet, though that will happen too. It's about the services our things talk to. These won't be "free" services that we get by trading away privacy for convenience. We'll pay for them. In return they will not only store our data. They'll also run code. And that code will work for us. It will evaluate rules ("change the oil every 6 months"), perform actions ("post an oil-change reminder to my calendar"), and interact with services that work for other parties ("authorize Greased Lightning to post an oil-change reminder to my calendar"). Bring it on!