Just a click away

Soon everything in our daily lives will be connected, and services to cater for all our needs will be available at the touch of a button. By Greg Williams

In his 2014 book Makers: the New Industrial Revolution, the writer and entrepreneur Chris Anderson made the case that, if the first 10 years of the web were about finding new social and innovation models online, the next 10 will be spent figuring out ways of applying these principles to the real world.

As social media platforms and emerging technologies such as wearables and the internet of things begin to become part of our daily lives, and we increasingly access real-world services via our smartphones, the distinctions between the virtual and the physical are beginning to blur.

Technology has converged around our constantly connected mobile devices, which have become our primary interface with the world. And it’s not just the West that is embracing this shift in thinking. The UAE has the highest smartphone penetration rate in the world, and businesses there are jostling to capture this active market, with a proliferation of business-minded apps and innovation in technologies such as virtual reality.

Cisco, the computer networking giant, estimates that there are around seven billion mobile devices globally. By 2020, there will be something like 50 billion web-connected devices, it predicts: intelligent monitors for smart metering, mechanical automation and machine-to-machine systems that communicate directly with other computers over the internet. We are now beginning to live within a network where everything – our homes, bodies, cars, jobs – are connected via the cloud in real-time on an individualised basis.

Our smartphones, coupled with ubiquitous wireless connectivity, cloud computing and tiny sensors that we can attach to everyday objects are the foundations of this network, also known as the internet of things. We can put sensors in rubbish bins to tell us when they need to be emptied, or implant them in roads to optimise the ease of finding a parking space. The world is taking on an electronic layer, and as these sensors communicate with one another, we will gain insights in ways we don’t even know might be useful yet. By connecting these sensors to the internet, it makes the data they’re generating available to anyone, anywhere.

Billions of dollars of venture capital has been poured into on-demand services in the past year, as mobile has driven huge shifts in consumer expectation

There will be a vast array of data points, and making sense of this data and figuring out ways for it to be useful is going to offer opportunities and will be the foundation of a multitude of new businesses – according to the research firm Gartner, IOT-related businesses will earn more than US$309bn by 2020.

Industries such as telecommunications and media have been disrupted by digital, and now new technologies are driving an ‘industrial internet’: digital technologies allied to the physical world.

General Electric ran a pilot scheme at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital in 2012 to match incoming hospital patients with empty beds by using sensors attached to patients and objects – it estimated the programme has allowed the treatment of 10,000 more patients a year. The wristbands with embedded sensors that were given to patients are a tangible example of how the IoT will begin to merge with wearable devices.

Wearables are in their early stages – Google announced the retirement of the computer-in-eyewear project Google Glass in January, and there is questionable consumer demand to be able to make, say, contactless payments via a watch. But this nascent technology is taking steps forward every year.

Meanwhile, the rapid growth and scalability of technology is being brought to real-world businesses from dog walking to laundry. So-called ‘on-demand’ services operate as an interface between consumers and service providers. And as industry moves increasingly on to the web, we will become more diligent in cultivating our online personal brand to attract employers.

Social media has developed beyond connecting with friends to businesses making contact with customers, and vice versa. This leveraging of mobile devices to aggregate consumer demand has seen billions of dollars of venture capital being poured into on-demand services in the past year, as mobile has driven huge shifts in consumer expectation, with services expected immediately.

Beauty app Priv will deliver a hairdresser to your door in less than an hour. Handy makes the same promise but with a roster of cleaners or handymen. And Careem enables users to jump aiport queues with its GPS-based taxi app.

It’s not inconceivable that, within five years, these deliveries will be made via driverless vehicles in cities that have fifth-generation mobile technology, where on-demand services, branding, wearables and the internet of things will no longer be recognisable as separate entities, but intrinsic to the fabric of human life.