Fantastic times lie ahead in the tech age. And this is in the form of the internet of things(IOT). Basically, the internet of things is the situation in which electronic devices are connected to the internet hence the ability to communicate and send data amongst themselves. It is incredible to imagine that your coffee maker could be connected to your mobile phone. Or a notch higher, your Oven is connected to your light bulbs, fridge, and your phone.
The possibilities the Internet of things creates are vast. Think of developers, start-ups developing systems which improve connectivity of devices. And unlike before where tech start-ups where creating disruptions, the big companies are salivating at the new opportunities available. This is an excellent opportunity for Kenya to start manufacturing consumer electronics on the IOT platforms and excel in one area of the economy where we have struggled to maintain growth – the manufacturing sector.
Several IOT systems and platforms exist currently but the potential that exists to be filled is big. Let’s consider Phillips – the Dutch Electronics giant. They have a bulb known as Philips Hue. It is can connect to your android, apple phone and desktop over the internet. You can control your lights smartly and remotely via SIRI. You can control your lights even when away from home which improves security. Also, on your phone app, you have a color wheel which enables you to make the bulb emit a one of 16,000 colors.
Another tech giant in the United States – Intel. In early October, I read some article on how the revenue growth at Intel has slowed down but they were not really ‘worried’ because of the opportunities created by IOT. So I guess if you are a long-term investor with a lot of money, Intel, Qualcomm and other chip making companies would be a sound investment.
Anyway with all these developments going on there are bound to be a couple of problems. I mean there is a possibility of someone hacking your emails if he gets access to your refrigerator. So privacy and security issues are bound to arise. Another vital issue comes up from what Phillips did in December. They released a software update to it ‘bulbs’ that make other equipment not approved by themselves incompatible.
Before the upgrade, Phillips developed its Hue bulbs, explained above, on a software platform called ZigBee. ZigBee is an open source facility to help internet of things devices communicate. What happened is Philip’s software update made devices on this platform incompatible in favor of another platform called friends of hue. Friends of Hue is a platform developed by Phillips. Obviously, users were not pleased with this move. Phillips said that the intention is to ensure high standards are maintained for their consumers. That could be the point but the bottom-line is that such a move that limits consumer choice and ‘kill’ competition. Hence, it is against competition and consumer laws and goes against the very essence of IOT, that is to make life easier.
Essentially, what Phillips is doing is locking out competitors from the equation creating a monopolistic setting. This is outlawed in Kenya by the competition law. The question is whether the competition authority would come to the defense of the Kenyan public when IOT presents this form of a challenge is difficult to predict. These guys have been around for a while and they haven’t been able to deal with the banks cartel-like behavior and the alleged Safaricom dominance. You can imagine a scenario where you have bought a Samsung fridge and you use in together with some locally develops apps and all of a sudden Samsung put in an update which disables access to the apps in favor of systems that it has developed. This might even kill the efforts of local developers who might have been developing systems that integrate these consumer electronics.
Another issue that might be common is something I came across late last year. It involves John Deere tractors. These tractors come with software loaded to them which assist farmers monitor hydraulics behind the working of the equipment the farmer uses and loads of other stuff. That’s really great for a farmer but when the software loaded on his tractor get spoilt it becomes a problem for the farmer. And this because the farmer is prohibited from interfering with the software running his tractor by the means of a digital lock. The digital lock can only be accessed by a mechanic from John Deere.
This means the farmer can’t call his local mechanic to revive his tractor because he will be in danger of violating copyright law in the digital millennium copyright act (DMCA 1998). What happened in America pre-DMCA then is that in the fear of copyright infringement, music and movie owners put digital locks in their CDs and stuff to prevent them from being pirated. Again digital locks are set to prevent the extremely innovative from reverse engineering. This was supported by the act and you can see the effect it’s having when copyrightable software finds itself on objects we use in our day to day lives.
So you can imagine having bought an LG dishwasher that comes with a robust software but once a problem arises you have to wait on the LG people to come over fix your device. How would that be in Kenya? First of all, the ‘average’ Kenyans aren’t concerned about copyrights and that kind of stuff. If your software gets ruined just rush it to your repair guy and have it made. The problem that arises from that is that the device provider may sense the hack and lock you out is because your device is connected to the internet and there is data transfer.
First of all the above act by John Deere seems uncompetitive and it is highly unlikely that such things will be a huge problem in Europe, Africa, and Asia. A good example is what used to happen in Europe before 2003. Before that period, one could have voided the warranty on their vehicle if they had it repaired by a person not authorized by the vehicle manufacturer. This was inconvenient and expensive and the introduction of the BER (Block exemption rules) in 2003 by the European Commission sought to resolve this. Since then clauses that void warranties are prohibited. A similar approach would have to be followed to avoid a situation described above for consumer electronics.
Well, as a developing economy, a lot more money needs to be directed to research and innovation so that IOT does not carry us like passengers. Also, opportunities and challenges exist in the mold of what I have talked about or in an entirely different shape. All in all exciting times lay ahead in tech.