Sunday, 16 November 2014

Cloud automation and the internet of things

'Robot' by Christelle
under a CC license
Day-by-day, our lives become increasingly digital. With internet gaining share in our everyday routine it was inevitable someone would start interconnecting our network-capable devices (for which I think I've written about before...).

At the beginning, things were a bit basic. For instance, being able to check our cloud-based mailbox and our automatically synchronising cloud-residing files from all our devices (desktop, smartphone, tablet, etc.).

Then cloud application upped their intelligence a notch. It became - for example - possible to send somebody an email proposing a meeting date, the cloud service would add that date on the recipient's calendar and the recipient's smartphone would remind the user on time for the proposed meeting.

With more-and-more web services, programs and devices having public APIs, cross-application functionality has taken off and the user mashup potential has become evident. It may sound complicated but the fact is that it can simplify our daily lives (and - possibly - increase our geek level, too!). It is now possible to check on and control web applications in order to achieve things that in the past would require a separate web service, app or program.

Let's take IFTTT as an example (IFTTT stands for 'If This Then That', by the way - do check their website!): A user can choose amongst a large list of web services, devices with web output, smartphone events, etc. and when something specific happens to cause a reaction. For instance, User1 can set IFTTT to monitor the Twitter posts of User2 and when a new tweet is posted, IFTTT can send an SMS to the mobile of User1 or email that post to User1's email, etc. Interesting? It can get better. Imagine using it for networked devices, such as a networked thermostat (e.g., a Nest thermostat) or a networked light installation (e.g., Philips Hue) or a signal-producing usb device (e.g., Blink(1)), etc. For instance, you can increase the temperature at home when leaving work or set the lights to the bright setting when an incoming call comes from work. All of a sudden, it is possible to achieve automation that, albeit simple, would be next-to-impossible to do (cheaply) a few years ago.

Needless to sat that IFTTT is not the only player around. Zapier, Yahoo Pipes, We Wired Wed, Cloudwork and others - many others - are available, some for free, some at a cost. I feel certain that more will follow. I believe that what we are seeing is the early days of automation for the masses :-)

Of course, by interconnecting devices and services we are exposing an even larger part of our (real) lives to third parties. This, inevitably, implies risks. Rogue or simply irresponsible service providers may opt to sell our personal data, hackers may gain control of our smartphones, lights, etc. Our privacy may be compromised in ways that may not be immediately obvious, perhaps to directions that we wouldn't really want.

As always, innovation, in itself, is not good or bad. It is just something new. It is up to us to find the best way to use it. To strike the right balance. To shape the market into the form we want, placing the right safeguards and, ultimately, to make our lives a bit better (or funnier... or geekier...), while keeping us on the safe side.

Disclosure note (and some of the usual 'fine print'): I am not affiliated to or have received any subsidy/grant/benefit in return for this post from any of the companies, whose products are mentioned above. Mentioning, in this post, a product or a service is not meant to constitute an endorsement (as I have not, personally, used all those products). The names of the above mentioned products and services are property of their respective owners.

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