The BCS, Chartered Institute for IT, hosted the Mashup Event in London last night, an event focused on the Internet of Things. As chair I knew it was important to establish boundaries for the evening's discussion, but the problem is... there is simply no sector or discipline that is or will be left untouched by the Internet of Things.

Fortunately, I could lean on an expert panel to shoulder the burden of picking out the topics, although I was first to take a stab at defining the topic: a network of objects beyond the 'usual' including:

  • the device containing electronics in order to fulfil its primary function (eg, washing machine, car, aircon unit)
  • the electrical device traditionally absent of sophisticated electronics (eg, lighting, heating, power distribution)
  • non-electrical objects (eg, food and drink packages, animals, clothing); and
  • environmental sensors (eg, for variables such as temperature, heat and moisture).

David Orban opened the evening in ten minutes with a fast, furious, compelling and fascinating slide stack. He could have banged us over the head with ten minutes about WideTag, but preferred to situate his company's endeavours in the bigger picture. Videos from tonight will go up on the Mashup Event website, but if you can't wait, here's a video of David in action at Momo Amsterdam a month ago.

David Wood completed the scene setting (we like to open Mashup Event's to the floor quickly). Having spent a decade with Psion and a decade with Symbian, David is well placed to discuss the factors that influence the success and failure of technology led innovations. His whistle stop tour of issues this evening covered technology, business model, ecosystem management, project development agility and design, and his recent blog post does more justice to his perspectives than I can do here.

As the conversation was opened up, it wasn't too long before we hit disagreement. It seems panellist Phil Cole of Wireless Logic (the UK's most successful independent M2M service provider) over-emphasised a vertically focused approach to the chagrin of Pachube's Usman Haque who is more convinced of the horizontal opportunities. Fortunately, both Phil and Usman softened towards each other's point of view, particularly as the remaining panellists, Everythng's Niall Murphy and Arkessa's Paul Green, mediated. Discussions of smart transport, healthcare and street lighting (that bored adolescent's can turn on and off at will) helped ground the conversation before we took off again.

Having been closely involved with the evolution of the World Wide Web (and more specifically an Open Web, an openness we should never take for granted!), I wondered what the panellists thought about potential parallels between the evolution of the Internet and the evolution of the Internet of Things. In particular, does any idea of "optimal outcome" require the Internet of Things to have an equivalent body or initiative to the Internet Governance Forum? And what is an "optimal outcome"?

Having directed the question to David Orban he was quick to point out that he had no patience in waiting thirty years this time, fair point, and it seemed that there was some concensus that a degree of intermediation would be required. It seems to me however that this should not be enforced too early, nor too late. Markets aren't perfect, as recently demonstrated beyond argument, but then early intervention can kill the potential innovations born of a thriving and competitive marketplace. Mmmm. So we didn't get to define what might be optimum; hey, we only had 90 minutes.

I invited Telefonica O2's Mike Short to give us the telco's take, and his response was straight forward: proprietary is the biggest barrier and regulators don't yet understand what's going on here; to which there were considerable nods of agreement around the room.

Responding to a tweet in the #mashupevent tweetstream, the debate moved to points of privacy and the associated terms of service. Niall donned his entrepreneur's hat and stated categorically that startup's should steer clear of personalisation. It almost sounded like he was saying the associated regulatory regime means personal data should be considered toxic waste, a turn of phrase I recently heard a privacy counsel for one of the biggest search engines use. And happy to play contrarian again, Usman responded by saying that no-one should be afraid of personalisation, but rather simply allow users to do what they will and share what they want.

I introduced my 7-position dial metaphor at this juncture. It goes like this. Just as the subtleties of asserting copyright have been articulated in a series of standard creative commons legal documents, one could envisage, say, seven standard legal documents describing an individual's, or more probably a household's, approach to their willingness to share their use data with the product or service supplier, or any third party come to that. Number 1 could be as "off grid" as you can be, perhaps excepting the needs of emergency services to triangulate your mobile phone's position. Number 1 says "get out of my life".

Number 7 could be just what the life streamer with a camcorder hanging off the side of his head would go for. They have no problem sharing everything. Or if the typical Western stereotype of the Chinese culture is correct, and my knowledge here is too flimsy to state one way or the other, Number 7 could be the "I'm Chinese and my dial doesn't have options 1 to 6".

Cultural extremes aside, the consumer / the citizen learns the privacy level they're most comfortable with, accepting the trade-offs between additional services or warranties or other goodies in return for their data or otherwise, and can easily join their 'things' to the Internet with confidence. David Wood also pointed out that my 7-position dial need not be physical, but represent the virtual interface to that 'thing' when addressed from a 'thing' with a screen.

Three things stuck in my mind from the panellists' concluding statements. David Wood asserted with resolute confidence that healthcare is the first big opportunity for the Internet of Things. Niall believes that early applications will simply informationally augment the physical products already in our possession, and insisted we address the basics first; infrastructure and trust. And David Orban pointed out that the Internet of Things transforms all manufacturers into service providers... a manufacturer of kettles today becomes a water boiling service provider tomorrow.

After all that, it's time for a cup of tea.