David Rowan, Wired magazine: Totally wired

Capacity Europe day 1 – When Wired editor David Rowan talks about the future, people listen. Today's keynote speaker at Capacity Europe offers Guy Matthews some insights into where telcos can fit in to a connected universe.

Today's keynote speaker David Rowan has a substantial fanbase among those who take an interest in the technology that will shape our future. He is editor of the UK edition of influential tech magazine Wired, and a prominent futurologist. Rowan’s insights into what lies over the digital horizon have made him one of the hottest tickets on the corporate speaking circuit.

The Internet of Things is one of the topics that Rowan expounds on most regularly, along with Big Data and robotics, although he is wary of the headline-grabbing projections that so many experts seem hooked on.

He points to Cisco CEO John Chambers who has talked of $19 trillion worth of economic value spinning out of non-human communications over the next decade, predicting a multiple of five to ten times as much impact on society when compared with today’s browser-led internet. Analyst firm Gartner forecasts that 26 billion connected objects will be in operation by 2020. Consultants, Rowan notes drily, are paid to make up numbers.

“Whether any of this is true or not, we do know that the price of connecting the physical world to the internet is falling and that this will open up huge new opportunities,” he believes. “Pretty soon, if you are a manufacturer and you are not building connectivity into your products, there’s a danger you will be left behind.”

Put half a dozen M2M experts in a room and you’ll get a pretty outlandish cross-section of possible applications, ranging from the life-saving to the absurdly trivial.

“I’ve heard about farming equipment that generates soil test reports, as well as golf balls that send a message to your iPhone so you can tell everyone what a great shot you just played,” he says.

Rowan is happy that the M2M lunatic fringe can be safely ignored: “I did a talk recently entitled the Internet of Stupid Things, looking at ideas that people have developed just because they could, regardless of how useful they are,” he says. “Of course there’s a lot of great ideas too, that will save huge amounts of aviation fuel for example, or perhaps just save you time when looking for a parking space.”

Data storm

However the Internet of Things works out, it will almost certainly mean a massive new onslaught of data for network operators to reckon with, points out Rowan.

“For telcos and data centre operators there is a big challenge here – how to turn all this added data into actual actionable information?” he believes. “There’s going to be a huge increase in demand for effective real-time visualisation products that allow this. Telcos will need software that lets them simulate all sorts of outcomes. They need the ability to navigate all that data.”

Networks, he forecasts, will not only need to get bigger and smarter, but also more secure: “This may be the biggest challenge that telcos will face, particularly mobile operators who will be handling data generated by devices in some remote places, creating all sorts of vulnerabilities,” he points out. “This is at a time when cybercrime is creating the biggest surge in wealth in criminal history. We’re seeing corporate networks accessed from places like China on a huge scale, looking for competitive information.”

The enemy is not so much at the gate as already inside the perimeter, he fears: “If you are a data centre operator, you need to start from the assumption that the bad guys are already inside your facility, and your job is to limit the damage,” he warns. “Telcos likewise can’t stop crime, but it’s their job to be aware of it.”

For all the talk of connected living and wearable computers, Rowan says it is important to acknowledge that not all M2M innovation is about consumers: “I don’t think Google Glass will make it into the consumer mainstream, because it’s just too clunky,” he says. “But it might have industrial applications.”

Talking to the walls

With so many devices and objects set to be connected to a network before long, the expectations of both enterprises and consumers will change, believes Rowan: “People will expect physical objects to provide information or a service of some sort, and that will often be a service they are prepared to pay for,” he says. “This will be an opportunity for many vertical sectors, and for telcos also.”

With most telco revenue streams fast commoditising, those that can create any kind of desirable new service offer are those that will prosper, Rowan believes.

“With the right services, you can also create loyalty with an offer that other telcos can’t provide because they don’t have the right analytics software,” he says. “This is the time when carriers need to be asking where and how they are adding value. A carrier with a wholesale focus in particular needs to ask where they fit into this digital future. There’s no prizes for those who want to wait and see.”

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