The 21st Century Arrives on the Internet
January 18, 2011
The calendar says we're ten years into the new century, but so far things haven't felt much different from 1999. That could change soon. There's a good chance 2011 will mark the true beginning of a truly new age.
It took two decades for the 20th century to get up to full steam, and for the "roaring 20s" to launch a new age. Known as the Jazz Age, the twenties set the stage for the technology-driven culmination of what historians call the Modern Age, an era of science and technology that started approximately with Johannes Gutenberg's printing press in 1436 and extended beyond the Postmodern 1950s and 60s, to include the Atomic Age, the Space Age, and the dawn of the Internet Age.
But since we're in the Internet Age, and things happen faster in Internet time, the 21st century's Next Age, whatever we call it, is likely to arrive sooner than expected. Here are just a few of the signs that the Next Age is here:
Moore's Law continues driving computing costs down, and that's driving everything smaller, lighter, faster, smarter and networked. Computers have gone from mainframe to mini to micro/PC to mobile. At Monaco Media Forum, Ericson CEO predicted 50 billion connected devices by 2020 and a truly "networked society." (See MMF 2010 Keynote on YouTube, "Internet 2.0: Mobile changes everything," by Hans Vestberg, President & CEO, Ericsson).
But it's not just people getting connected by the Internet. Where the numbers get really big--and really interesting to those of us in the industrial equipment business--is what has been called the Internet of Things. "The next big revolution that will happen is the Internet of things," Cisco Chief Technology Officer Padma Warrior said at the 2010 CTIA Wireless Trade Show in Las Vegas. She predicted 1 trillion connected devices by 2013.
Networked things in a process include sensors, which can monitor and report process status, actuators, which can trigger an action, and controllers. Actions based on an input from a sensor are turned into a command by a controller. An example from my world of process equipment would be a Smart Force Transducer (made smart by an on-board microprocessor) that sends a digital weight signal to a feeder controller (also dependent on a microprocessor), that controls the speed of a motor (the actuator) that turns the screws of a loss-in-weight feeder.
According to K-Tron CTO Jim Foley, one of the biggest gains yet to be realized by the Network of Things in the process industries will be in terms of feeder system support. "A big trend in industrial networking," Foley said, "has been the near-universal acceptance of Ethernet ." He said all the industrial network protocols are now able to run on top of Ethernet, which is very easy to connect to either within the factory or remotely. This offers the possibility of instant remote diagnostics and troubleshooting.
"We have the tools now," Foley said, "to provide remote support, and the advantages to our customers are obviously huge. The only thing missing is for processors to put in place the safeguards they feel necessary to grant our service people the access."
The Internet Age doesn't simply grow at an astounding pace: It keeps changing and morphing in entirely unpredicted ways. Its impact spreads from how we market and sell our products to how we service our customers. It transforms our society, our children, our employees and our customers.
When social media hit the Internet scene in the last decade, it so changed the landscape we gave it its own name, Web 2.0. Now, smart phones and their apps, followed closely by tablets and e-books, have once again transformed the Internet landscape. Today's Internet is more social than ever, highly search-driven, far more local in language and culture, and is moving far beyond the desktop. What does all this mean to industry?
In an article on CIO.com titled "The Internet of Things and the Cloud CIO of the Future," Bernard Golden, author of the best-selling "Virtualization for Dummies," wrote:
"The simple fact is that everyone — and that includes (perhaps especially includes) those of us in the technology industry — underestimates the growth of ever-cheaper computing devices. To quote one industry luminary, later hoisted on his own petard, Ken Olsen, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." Olsen now is laughed at for such an attitude, but the fact is, for the reality of the market as he saw it at the time, it was completely appropriate. But he completely missed how the market exploded once the reduced cost of personal computing enabled entire new uses for computers…. Ken Olsen's example indicates that one is better served in keeping one's eyes on the horizon rather than the well-trod ground at one's feet."
Illustration: Where there's smoke there's fire by Russell Patterson