The smartphone revolutionized personal computing, creating a computer that most of us have within arm’s reach 24 hours a day. The Internet of Things promises to revolutionize computing again, by connecting and collecting data from everything we live in, drive in, eat in, sleep in and work in.
In just a year or two, the number of IoT devices will outnumber the number of PCs, smartphones and laptops globally. Forecasts range from as low as 41 billion to as high as 80 billion connected devices worldwide by 2020.
But how will this really change how we live and work?
Search is dead, long live search
For years people have been claiming that search is dead, but we still find ourselves on Google GOOG 1.57% looking for a restaurant, searching for the best ski equipment or researching a new company. However, the promise of Io T means never having to search again. With every connected device you have, more data is collected about you, your habits, your needs and your preferences. When this data is aggregated, a complete virtual profile of you emerges. This profile will will know what you need before you do.
The virtual you will be able to anticipate your needs, perform the necessary search and deliver the result you need, before you even have to ask. It will be able to adjust your thermostat before you realize you are too hot or place an order for tissues before you notice you have run out. Obviously, search still happens, but it is all done behind the scenes. If the Internet of Things becomes what we believe it can be, you’ll never need to visit the Google homepage again – except to check the daily doodle.
It’s all about the ecosystem
For this to happen, all our devices and all our data have to be connected. By 2020, the average person will have more than four Internet-connected devices, but they won’t be very useful if they exist in silos.
Just as operating systems have become the bases of power in the mobile ecosystem, the central platforms through which IoT devices connect will be the locus of the industry. These platforms will enable the aggregation and analysis of data from a variety of sources and will connect to mobile payments, commerce and other services so users can take action based on that information. An open platform is key to creating an IoT ecosystem that is greater than the sum of its parts.
At the company level, building a strong ecosystem is also critical to success. The winners in IoT will be companies that build large, loyal user bases. On the product side, more users create more data, which informs algorithms and delivers better results. Shipping more units also gives companies more leverage with suppliers and makes them more attractive to partners. Just as in the social sector, network effects will matter.
The U.S. and China will need each other
Being a successful IoT company is hard. In fact, IoT companies have to be three great companies in one:
1.Hardware: Building beautiful products with high-quality sensors to collect data.
2.Platform: Collecting, processing and analyzing massive quantities of data to deliver insights.
3.Software: Creating best-in-class user experiences to make insights actionable.
With such requirements, it becomes very difficult for a company to do all things well in one place. A global perspective allows the company to seek out best-in-breed solutions – wherever they may be.
We have several companies in our own investment portfolio, including Zepp and EHANG, that were founded with headquarters in both Silicon Valley and China, because they realized they needed to be in both places to succeed. In the U.S., they get experienced product designers and engineers, marketing experts and access to the high-end consumer market. In China, they have manufacturing and supply chain superiority, a breadth of engineering resources and a massive developing consumer market.
Playing in the global market also allows companies serving niche segments or use cases to still achieve massive scale. While UX and go-to-market strategies may need to adapt to different markets and segments, the back-end technologies can apply globally. We expect to see more IoT (and other tech) companies in the future throw off the limitations of being a “national” company and truly embrace being global from day one.
Mobile won’t always be on mobile
The launch last week of the Apple Watch AAPL 1.24% actually foreshadows another evolution coming in IoT: blurring the lines between hardware, software, and mobile.
IoT devices to date have been pieces of hardware that connect to an app on your smartphone, which allows you to interact with them. The Apple Watch signals an important shift as it combines the hardware and sensors with the software and user interface into one device. While it still requires an iPhone to connect to the Internet, it is easy to see a future “iWatch” that eliminates the need for the phone entirely.
As IoT devices evolve, they will take on more “mobile” qualities and become the new home for many functions we currently rely on our smartphones to perform. In addition to making search obsolete, IoT could make the smartphone irrelevant in the near future.
Jenny Lee and Hans Tung are managing partners with venture capital firm GGV Capital. Lee is based in Shanghai, while Tung is based in Silicon Valley.