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A Sensor in Every Pot Could Change the World

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January 13, 2015
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No company wants to be a one-trick pony. There’s no future in it.

Where would McDonald’s be today if it had stuck with BBQ beef, ham and pork sandwiches as its lead menu items? Its successful start in this direction quickly attracted competition and forced a “re-invention” by the owners. The rest is history, along with very broad economic, production, societal, parental, health, municipal development, food science and other implications.

There are many more companies that failed to follow up their first big product hit with added features, next generations, product line extensions and entries into adjacent markets than there are companies that made it. Consider Burt’s Bees, which started out as a beeswax candle-making company in the remote reaches of northern Maine in 1984. Today, it’s owned by Clorox and offers 200 personal care products sold through 30,000 retail outlets. At the other end of the spectrum is the Kaypro Corporation and its popular Osborne 1 “luggable” microcomputer, which missed the PC market altogether, forcing it into bankruptcy in 1990.

So, what’s next — equipping lip balm or chicken nuggets with data-generating sensors? Well, yes, something like that. It’s the “how” and “for what purpose” that keeps creative geniuses and entrepreneurs up at night.

Increasingly, affordable sensor technology is making this not only possible but, some would say inevitable. It likely will not be in the consumables themselves, but in their packaging most certainly, which could then interact with technology-equipped wearables or vehicles, calorie-counter, personal health or product-locater apps (where did I leave that lip balm?). Maybe an advertisement comes on the radio when you pass that location or a coupon pops up on your smartphone on that time and day each week. Or, the lip balm cartridge detects halitosis or cold sores. Who knows? That’s the fascination.

The really big deal will be when the lip balm and nuggets data are combined and mined and added to other data to create something entirely new and different, having nothing to do with the source products necessarily. As obscure as this may seem, the implications could prove to be as profound as a 15-cent hamburger. Or, an utter failure, which has its own value.

Scaling up the Internet of Everything (IoE) to many billions of devices is certain to bring about the unexpected, both positive and negative. Proactively anticipating and planning for the possibilities is what Gartner seems to be advising its clients to do in an April 23, 2014 report, “Assessing the Business Impact of New Technology — A Three-Level Framework.”

This is a journey that cannot be seen entirely to its end but, as analyst Stephen Prentice writes in the report introduction, “The impact of emerging technologies frequently extends significantly beyond the initial implementation.”

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Like many first-generation products, new digital products and services will be targeted at a specific need and, when successful, deliver immediate benefits to the creators and users. Combining and leveraging that success with other successes, aggregating and analyzing data streams, expanding the addressable market, partnering with complementary companies and creating additional revenue streams is the next phase, the scalability of which can transform a business; seeing the extensibility of an initial product investment into this second phase should help CIOs and business leaders decide which products are most worthy of investment in the first place.

By progressing through the first two levels described in the Gartner report, CIOs and business leaders can eventually arrive at third-order impacts.

“The broader insights and/or capabilities that derive from the expanding deployments by CIOs and business leaders eventually can result in radical changes at an industry or societal level,” the author writes.

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A Sensor in Every Pot Could Change the World

The idea of “everything connected” is as exciting as it can be unsettling at times. It would be naïve to think that this will lead to a future that’s all sunshine and roses. These are powerful influences at work, including the power to be destructive forces or to produce unintended outcomes. Collectively, however, this is the direction in which we undeniably are heading. It’s incumbent upon business and IT leadership to responsibly apply these new technologies to know and serve their customers better, provide returns to shareholders, drive value-creation in our economy and, ideally, improve communities and the human condition. Realizing the inevitable and leveraging the technology to its fullest extent will also be a matter of business survival. Anyone want to buy an Osborne 1?

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